At The Modern, the cocktails are just the beginning

SPECIAL TO THE IDAHO STATESMANAugust 23, 2013 

  • THE MODERN HOTEL AND BAR

    Address: 1314 W. Grove St., Boise

    Phone: (208) 424-8244

    Kitchen hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday–Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday–Saturday

    Price range: Appetizers, salads and sandwiches $5-$16; larger plates $9-$20

    Libation situation: Lots of inventive cocktails, French wines and regional microbrews, including some from Idaho.

    Kid friendly? No. It’s a cocktail lounge.

    Wheelchair accessible? Yes

    Opened: 2007

One of the best restaurants in Boise really isn’t a restaurant at all.

Of course, I’m referring to the bar at The Modern Hotel in the Linen District. This sleek gastrolounge has had many superlatives tagged to it over the years. People throw around “ultra-hip” all the time when they talk about the place.

The Modern is assuredly a hotspot for hipsters, but it goes well beyond just mixing trendy cocktails and offering swanky European environs in which to enjoy inventive takes on Manhattans and mojitos. The stylish bar food that comes out of the jewel-box-sized kitchen is just as nuanced, if not more so, than the libations mixed by the bartenders moving about with metal shakers in hand.

Chef Nate Whitley, a California Culinary Academy graduate and veteran of several Boise kitchens, including Mortimer’s and Red Feather Lounge, was hired in 2012 to put his confident stamp on the food. He deftly directs the ingredient-focused cuisine, which happens to be impeccably seasonal and local. It’s a concept that has gone from a culinary trend to a way of doing business for chefs across America.

Whitley changes his French-tinged menus nearly every month, closely following the harvest schedules of area farms. There’s even a litany of local producers that he uses as a sidebar on the menu.

One night, during happy hour (4 to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday), my dining partner and I escaped the smothering heat for the air-blasted climes of The Modern’s small dining room, which quickly filled up with other people looking to do the same. The Modern has a super-cool patio, but it’s not cool in terms of temperature, especially during a triple-digit heat wave.

Our server, even though she became instantly slammed with patrons, took our drink order immediately and knowledgeably fielded questions about the menu before running off to another table.

A few minutes later, we received a tumbler of chilled Le Cirque Rose ($8.50/bone-dry from France) and a tall cocktail called a Floradora ($9, made with gin, raspberry, ginger beer and lime), both of which were refreshing picks on such a sultry evening.

We started things off with the wild mushroom-chevre tart ($7), a wedge of savory goat cheese pie meshed with braised leeks and meaty oyster mushrooms, served warm next to a pile of fresh arugula. Did I mention the crust was incredibly flaky?

Then out came the best sturgeon dish I’ve ever had in a restaurant. This chilled appetizer of applewood-smoked Hagerman Valley sturgeon ($9) was set off by an amalgam of vibrant salsa verde and tarragon creme fraiche —sauces from different parts of the world that mingled with great success without drowning out the earthy flavor of the lightly smoked fish. Delicately braised patty pan and baby yellow squashes also adorned the plate.

We tagged on some padron peppers ($5) for good measure. These blistered little green peppers were simply fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, just the way they are served at tapas places in northwest Spain.

Since the portions are small at The Modern, we had plenty of room for the game hen ($17). Once again, Whitley tastefully fused flavors from different spots on the globe with this nuanced poultry entree. A crispy-brown half hen (tender and juicy, thanks to a sizzling pan) came perched on a mound of creamy polenta with toothsome pieces of fragrant, Algerian-style sausage from Meadowlark Farm. The pan sauce that glazed the chicken had a backbeat of cumin and coriander. Game hen dishes don’t get much better than this.

The only downside to our experience on this evening was the rum-soaked pound cake ($7), mostly because the strong liquor flavor wiped out the taste of the whipped cream and fresh summer berries that dotted the plate. I felt a slight buzz after eating this saturated cake, or maybe it was the cocktails.

We showed up again, about a week later, and quickly noticed there was a new piece of artwork hanging in the dining room. A rectangular photo of a fast-moving Idaho wildfire now seemingly floats on a large sheet of Plexiglas. My dining partner aptly called it an “atmospheric choice.” The photo is surely apropos for southern Idaho in August.

This time we got the ball rolling with an order of lamb meatballs ($10) and a Manhattan-inspired libation called a Boulevardier ($9) — made with rye whiskey, Campari, sweet vermouth and flamed orange.

The meatballs, which were liberally coated with herbaceous red wine demi-glace and caramelized onion, had a pate-like creaminess under a properly seared exterior. Slices of crostini were there to soak up the pooled sauce.

We also enjoyed a simple yet delicious roasted kale salad ($9). These tart greens, tossed in miso vinaigrette with cornbread croutons, boasted a good crunch, under a hillock of finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Goat meat is often misunderstood. If it’s fresh and young, like lamb, goat has a pleasantly mild taste, not strong and gamey like most people imagine. Rest assured. There’s no old goat here. Whitley takes his locally sourced goat meat in a Latin direction, with a napoleon of sorts. A goat shank ($18) gets slow-cooked with roasted shallots and citrusy tomatillo sauce until it’s falling apart. The tender meat and chunky sauce is then layered with crispy chickpea pancakes in a vertical uprising of mellow and bright flavors.

I don’t typically order gnocchi this time of year, but The Modern’s summer version ($13) of this classic winter dish was surprisingly light. Delicate little pillows of dough were tossed in garlicky pesto with lightly sautéed Swiss chard and slivers of shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

Nuance and creativity are keys to success in the restaurant business. The Modern obviously has these things down pat — even if the place isn’t a full-fledged restaurant.

Email James Patrick Kelly: scene@idahostatesman.com

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