Four months ago, I wondered aloud whether Highland Park was ready for Moderno. Today, we begin to find out, as Chef John des Rosiers and his crew officially open their doors at 1850 Second Street.
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Des Rosiers boasts that Moderno is part of a "revolution" in North Shore restaurants, one he is personally leading. The word "revolution" even appears in neon, backwards, on the south wall of the new restaurant as well as the staff uniforms. His goal is to raise expectations among area diners, where -- if they leave themselves in the hands of the chefs -- our expectations of a nice meal out will be transformed and elevated to expect fresh, flavorful and creative meals.
He believes that too many of the restaurants in the area try too hard to cater to the whims of their customers, leading to overall compromises in the dining experience. Moderno, following in the same footsteps of Inovasi in Lake Bluff and three Wisma takeout shops, is designed to deliver the goods.
Over the last several months, Des Rosiers has provided unprecedented access to the restaurant buildout. I first visited the Moderno space in February, when it wasn't much more than walls and some kitchen appliances. Through Twitter and Facebook, and the occasional conversation, I learned quickly that des Rosiers is a man who sets a vision and then delivers on it. In January, he boastfully handed me a draft of the restaurant menu -- and on opening day, it actually looks pretty close. When des Rosiers said he would bring in high-quality talent, he didn't mess around and hired Phil Rubino as executive chef for the Moderno kitchen. Rubino has cooked at L2O, Bin 36 and the Hotel Sofitel in Chicago.
During an early morning meeting a few months ago, the two chefs sounded like they had completed a Vulcan mind-meld: they had exactly the same thoughts about the restaurant and what it would be like when it opened.
Moderno is an ambitious project for Des Rosiers. The space is bigger than Inovasi, and they plan on serving lunch and dinner seven days a week along with a take-out business and large patio. Not surprisingly, he isn't trusting it to just anyone. The general manager, Elkin Chahin, has been on staff at Inovasi for several years. The assistant general manager, Andrew Morgan, went to school at Lake Forest College and has known des Rosiers for several years. And John himself has been in the restaurant every day for weeks -- emailing me from there at 4:30 a.m. one day, 9 p.m. another -- putting on the finishing touches.
Last week, I was a guest of the restaurant at a preview dinner. I suppose after eating at Inovasi more than forty times, I know something about how a des Rosiers project should work. And I'm happy to report that, should Highland Park diners embrace a chef-driven restaurant, we're all going to love Moderno.
The menu features five broad categories -- starters, pizzas, pastas, shareables, and not-so-shareables. However, overall conceptually, this is a place to bring your friends and try it all. We certainly wanted to last week.
However, this is not just a regular old Italian restaurant, with red sauces and minestrone. In fact, the success or failure of the place will depend on whether or not Highland Park diners will accept a place without a Caesar salad or fried calamari, or if they are willing to eat the dishes as the kitchen envisions them. If you head into Moderno thinking that you will be doing your best imitation of Meg Ryan's "high maintenance" in "When Harry Met Sally," may I suggest there are other wonderful restaurants on Second Street. Instead, if you think that the combination of fresh sardines, pickled leeks, and preserved lemons on toast sounds divine, or at least intriguing, order it. It's wonderful.
The pizzas and pastas feature high-quality ingredients in surprising combinations. We loved des Rosiers interpretations of the classics, though, too, including a wild boar bolognese papardalle that was unbelievable. The pizzas cook quickly and crispy, and will be an enjoyable part of the takeaway menu. The shareables, such as the arugula salad, were divine offsets to the pastas and pizzas. The desserts include a huge realistic-looking tartufo and a delightful strawberry shortcake, which surprisingly incorporates balsamic vinegar in a really wonderful way.
It was a big week for des Rosiers and team last week, as Inovasi was also recognized by local foodie website lthforum.com as a "Great Neighborhood Restaurant". The 100-ish such restaurants in the Chicago area include most of my favorites, plus some hole-in-the-wall unusual selections worth trying out. After just three years in Lake Bluff, this was great recognition of the talent in both the kitchen and the front of the house.
Indeed, the revolution continues on Second Street. I just hope that by writing such an unabashedly fanboy-based column, I don't inadvertently make the place so popular I can't get in.
It's ok, I'll wait my turn.