Flavor: Creative Italian
Ambiance: Cool class that wouldn't be out of place on a Manhattan side street
There's a whole lot of erratic underlining on Modesto's dinner menu.
In what looks like a slapdash effort to enhance the readability of the text-packed menu printed on folded cardstock, someone put a trigger finger to the control-U combo with an aim to underscore the last line of a few select item listings. Sadly, they misfired, hitting a first line here, and just a price there.
The resultant herky-jerky effect is something like the experience of eating at Modesto, a paean to Italian cuisine from famed Asheville chef Hector Diaz. While the Grove Arcade restaurant is turning out some sumptuous dishes, the place is still plagued by a few unfortunate glitches that should have been fixed after a full season in business. The menu editor's penchant for random underlining seems to have pervaded the entire restaurant, which even with Diaz now picking up shifts in the kitchen seems uncertain about its emphasis.
Diaz became a culinary hero by opening Salsa, the much-beloved downtown café that specializes in a fusion style best described as Caribbean Crazy. The Mexican-influenced menu there has goat cheese jamming with pineapples and beets sidling up to mangos. A bit of that daring migrated the four blocks west to Modesto a superlative pizza proves butternut squash, duck confit and goat cheese should never stray from each other's company but the kitchen isn't always brave enough to complete the vision.
Modesto's signature salad features whole hearts of romaine dressed with a mustardy Caesar. It's served in a shareable portion that our server assured us would be enough for three people, an amicable suggestion that became a plea after he realized how much we planned to order (one of the great joys of restaurant reviewing is risking being cut off by the waiter).
All portions were ample, but in the case of the salad our interest ran out before our appetites did. The bland dressing did little to perk up the watery lettuce leaves. Yet the evidence that the kitchen knew exactly what the pedestrian salad needed lay right on the plate: The lettuce was speckled with tiny studs of sweet dates. A perfectly loaded fork of Caesar-saturated lettuce and two or three carefully captured dates yielded a revelatory flavor: Had the cook showed enough confidence to shower the salad in the ancient fruit, we would have cleaned the plate.
Apparently unsure whether its allegiance belongs to tradition or innovation, the kitchen again got skittish with dessert. Twin pots of espresso crema were well paired with pralined walnuts, which were scattered alongside the gently bruleed coffee custard. But it was left to the diner to do the heavy lifting, determining just the right proportion of crema to nuts. The presentation only hinted at a smart flavor combination rather than boldly announcing it.
Other flavors would have been better muted, like the sweetness that marred the stuffed grape-leaf appetizer. The leaves were pumped full of risotto, currants, pine nuts and mint. The risotto was noticeably undercooked, making the currant-heavy concoction taste more like an energy-packed granola bar than a tribute to a Mediterranean classic. The dish was strangely garnished with two fat tomato wedges that could have been swiped from a second-tier salad bar, a low-budget element that echoed the plodding inelegance of the boutonniere-ready carnations perched on each table.
A cranberry bean-and-pancetta soup also succeeded in keeping our expectations low, although it was served in a whimsical footed tureen that made spoon sloshing more fun. If Modesto's menu were representative of a Mediterranean potluck, this beefy soup would be the local peasant's contribution. The rustic dish was warming, but its oily sheen and overplayed flavors weren't particularly endearing.
Our very accommodating server whisked away our first-course plates and silverware before the entrees arrived, explaining that the meal would be served in courses. This seemed akin to declaring the food would arrive on plates, but on an early visit to Modesto, our appetizers arrived well after our entrees, so perhaps the new dedication to diner-centric timing isn't something to scoff at.
Modesto seems committed to providing good service our white-silk-tied server was attentive and cheerful but its rendition of white-tablecloth serving standards was sometimes clunky. Replacing the silverware after each course is a nice touch: Reaching across the table for soiled knives and explaining the practice comes off as déclassé.
But our server had already won us over by greeting us with a conspiratorial "Do you like red wine?" and following up by delivering a sample of an off-the-list primitivo puglia to our table. The wine was a terrific match for our food, as was a full-bodied Barolo selected from the well-chosen menu of Italian wines.
Modesto proudly advertises its wood-fired pizzas, and while the restaurant doesn't seem to have decided whether to pitch them as appetizers or entrees, the pies are deserving of attention. Although the crusts probably wouldn't pass muster in Italy, they do a fine job of supporting the delectable vegetables, cheese and herbs crowded atop them.
There are three pastas on offer, including a limp and monochromatic tagliatelle that our server presented apologetically. "Maybe it needs more goat cheese," he mused. "I think the kitchen needs to add more sauce." The overcooked pasta, lumped on a white plate, almost seemed intended to shame vegetarians.
Carnivores fare better at Modesto. The entrees include an assortment of grilled meats and a braised lamb shank that's large and perfectly cooked. Ye olde lamb shanke is beautifully accompanied by a clump of tart sautéed watercress leaves and a pea pasta that's so poppingly fresh it deserves its own spot on the menu.
Modesto does a similarly good job with seafood, turning out a remarkable seared whole sea bass (the menu uses the word 'whole' loosely: Our fish lost his head between the kitchen and our table). The sea bass, joined on the plate by a redundancy of starches an uninspiring polenta and too-crisp roasted potatoes tastes as though it was just pulled from the water.
Dinner at Modesto ends as it begins: with wine. The restaurant doesn't stock decaf coffee, which is a commonsensical beverage to order after 9 p.m. on a weeknight. While the dessert menu of lemon almond torte and bread pudding invites diners to linger, the limited coffee availability sends a different signal.
Modesto could be very good. But it needs to find its groove and stick to it.