337 NE 13th Ave., Minneapolis, 612-378-9882
Review published January 2005
THE MODERN CAFE IS NOT MODERN by contemporary standards: no stark white walls, clean lines, or recessed ambient lighting. It’s 1950s modern, floors covered with checkered linoleum and tables edged with chrome and topped with Formica. The café is furnished in the muted tones of a faded Polaroid photograph, giving it a comfortable, well-worn feel. The dining room is anchored by an avocado-colored bar and lined with a row of high-backed wooden booths, which over time have been scarred with graffiti (DW + CJ = ).
The crowd at the Modern seems to reflect the neighborhood’s changing demographics: in the past 10 years, much of the young (read “poor”) artist clientele has been replaced by the people who buy their work, but the Modern still feels hip without being holier-than-thou. It’s part trendy, part traditional: half-priced wine nights on Tuesdays, yet the Star Tribune’s everyman columnist, Al Sicherman, eats lunch there almost every day.
Despite its old-school ambiance, the Modern isn’t one of those places where second-shifters drink watery coffee and fuel up on pasty biscuits and gravy. Though many dishes are home-cooking favorites, chef Phillip Becht prepares them with higher-quality ingredients and closer attention to detail. Yes, there are shiitaki mushrooms on the meat loaf—an improvement on the June Cleaver variety which has a nuanced flavor akin to smoked sausage. And the grilled cheese sandwich is a childhood favorite adapted to the more discerning tastes of adults. Each bite through the perfectly crisp crust offers a stack of flavors: the bread, tender and spongy, is separated by a thin line of Dijon mustard from the molten core of sweet caramelized onions and nutty Asiago cheese.
Becht also does contemporary gourmet: red curry mussel stew, gnocchi with beef cheek ragout, and an amazing spinach salad with Beluga lentils, goat cheese, and pistachios—a bizarre combination knitted together with citrus dressing. It sounds awful, tastes good, and is a welcome addition to the ubiquitous field of mixed greens and Caesars. Yet it’s hard to resist the comfort foods, namely the pot roast, beef so tender and tasty it may be keeping countless Minneapolitans from converting to vegetarianism.
There’s a familiarity to the food and the space—the Modern’s basement looks like grandma’s without all the boxes. It has chartreuse walls, an ancient cigarette vending machine, and restrooms that are height-hazardous to anyone taller than 65 inches. It’s clean and bright but borders on being the kind of ladies room where a waitress might leave her hairbrush on the sink or ash in the toilet bowl.
Which leads us to the only really bad thing about the Modern: they let customers smoke. The whole atmosphere practically begs for puffing and dragging repeatedly, but the Modern really shouldn’t allow it. Their food’s too good, and their bread basket’s too fragrant. As the bar on the corner reopens under new ownership and Ballet of the Dolls takes over the neighboring theater, the city’s March 31 smoking ban will be a move that’s decidedly modern.