New York’s Museum of Modern Art is one of the nation’s premier cultural institutions. Its galleries contain masterworks by leading contemporary artists from throughout the world. It is also home to one of the city’s culinary treasures, aptly called the Modern.
It’s hard not to be inspired in a dining room defined by a towering wall of windows framing the museum’s sculpture garden, which features works by Joan Miró, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Yet the Modern, which opened in 2005, doesn’t rely merely on its sublime setting.
Under the leadership of dining impresario Danny Meyer, the Modern is the flagship of his Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Gramercy Tavern and the soon-to-reopen Union Square Cafe. And after a major refitting in the past two years—including new staffers in executive chef Abram Bissell, wine director Michaël Engelmann and general manager Simon King—the Modern is making a strong bid for a place at the top of New York’s dining firmament.
The wine list has grown at a furious clip, expanding by more than 1,800 choices in the past two years; it now comprises 2,850 selections. Engelmann was given carte blanche when he signed on (following stints at Grand Award winners Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco and Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney). Since then he’s been strengthening the New World and Southern Hemisphere offerings while maintaining the list’s French emphasis, with a particular nod to Burgundy.
“There was really the ambition to take the restaurant that was successful to greater heights,” says Engelmann, who is originally from Alsace. “I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to show the diversity of the wines I’ve served over the course of my career from California, Australia and beyond. I’m hoping we can offer the best wine program and have the best restaurant in New York. I want to be known in Japan and Europe and elsewhere as a world-class destination for food and wine.”
Engelmann relies on a team of six sommeliers to serve and manage the Modern’s 16,000 bottles, which are stored three floors below the dining room in a space formerly used to warehouse artwork.
France is a strong suit. Whites are rich with verticals, including Trimbach Clos Ste.-Hune to 1997 ($450), from Alsace, and Vincent Dauvissat Chablis Le Clos to 1995 ($650). Among red Bordeaux, there is good representation of the first-growths, including Mouton-Rothschild 1982 ($5,500), as well as other classified-growths, such as Château Lynch Bages 1985 ($550). Red Burgundy shows breadth and depth, including Dujac Charmes-Chambertin 2012 ($750) and Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Clos des Ducs 2013 ($450).
California is also well-represented, with verticals including Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow to 1985 ($390) and Ridge Monte Bello to 1990 ($795).
J.J. Prüm Graacher Riesling Spätlese Himmelreich 2009 ($95), from Germany’s Mosel region, is one of more than 400 selections priced at $100 or less—a focus on value that is rare in a restaurant of this caliber.
The cuisine is a French-American mélange that is artfully imagined and skillfully executed. An entrée of pecan-stuffed chicken included green asparagus sliced paper-thin. Glazed veal cheeks were presented in two perfect squares, wrapped in a thin phyllo and evoking tiny packages. A whimsical PB&J dessert had delicate dollops of peanut butter.
All meals are prix fixe (three courses, $138; four courses, $158) and, under a policy instituted by Meyer last year (soon to take effect at all his restaurants), service for both food and wine is included, and tipping is actively discouraged. “People are happy with the service being included. It’s easier when they open the bill and just sign. The feeling is better,” Engelmann says.
Engelmann adds that the list will continue to grow, to 3,000 or more selections. There will be further refinements to the restaurant’s ambience, too, including expanded tableside service and moves to limit noise from the adjoining bar. From early August to mid September, the Modern will be closed for renovations.
With those tweaks, the experience of dining at the Modern should even more fully live up to its world-class setting.
Read the entire 2016 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, "Guide to the Growing World of Restaurant Wine," in the Aug. 31, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator.