By Michael McCarthy By Michael McCarthy | December 26, 2019 | Food & Drink
There’s a reason Ashok Bajaj is one of the most important restaurateurs in DC. He’s defined himself and his 10 (and counting) venues by understanding the culinary whims of a sophisticated audience. With Bajaj, instinct is everything. So, when he shuttered the popular Bibiana late last summer and brought in a team of designers to recreate the space, gourmands figured the sequel would be equally grand. He dubbed the new restaurant Modena. The cuisine would continue as Italian, but with a decidedly modern influence. The ace up Bajaj’s bespoke-suit sleeve: John Melfi would now run the kitchen. Melfi was Bajaj’s executive chef at Oval Room, led the kitchen at Blue Duck Tavern (earning a RAMMY for fine dining restaurant of the year) and was the executive chef for Fabio Trabocchi’s opening of Fiola Mare in 2014. He’s the right chef at the right moment for Bajaj.
Walking into the 140-seat restaurant with a 12-seat bar feels a bit like a party. Despite two private dining areas (one of which is fitted with wallcoverings of Italian columns sourced from Sterling Art of London), a buzz rises from the bar and main room, which features dark oak tables and new armchairs upholstered in shades of gray fabric—all complemented by teal walls and tableware by Villeroy & Boch.
From top: The dining room at Modena is lined with colorful lithographs of Vespa-riding sweethearts and Ferraris; the bar menu features sips like spritz, made with select vermouth or amari.
Melfi’s menu leads provocatively with an imported Italian trolley cart filled with antipasti—typically six to eight selections like octopus salad, artichoke scafatta and marinated peppers—served family-style. From there, first courses will remind the world why Melfi’s work is so adored. The citrus-cured Coho salmon “ravioli,” dressed with breakfast radish, squid-ink tuile and delicate nasturtium, is a little wonder. Malfi wraps the salmon around mascarpone to form a faux ravioli. Another first-course hit is bigeye tuna crudo with Bronte pistachio and trout roe. Malfi sears the fish on a 1,500-year-old Himalayan red-rock salt block and serves the dish salt block and all. An eyedropper of lemon oil accompanies the dish; each drop of oil brings out the dish’s subtle salinity.
Handmade pastas, not surprisingly, are also stars of the show. Melfi’s signature dish, chitarra pasta with piennolo tomatoes and generous flakes of lump crab, is taken to new heights with a half moon of sea urchin and a tangy blast of chile. Another showstopper is Melfi’s rendition of gnocchi: dime-size bites topped with shaved Tuscan truffle, water buffalo butter and an unfussy sheep’s milk cheese. The generous truffle-shavings bring out the smoky influences of the treat. The combo of warm cheese and butter meld the truffle shavings with each doughy potato nugget—the elements becoming one.
The bigeye tuna crudo is served atop a Himalayan salt block.
Malfi’s second course includes land and sea. Early favorites are the monkfish brodetto and pan-roasted Shenandoah lamb. The monkfish is served in a soup bowl atop fregola sarda; Manila clams, roasted tomatoes and calamari tag along. The server pours a warm lobster broth into the bowl, which animates everything into a fragrant stew perfect for dipping fluffy focaccia. The Shenandoah lamb is one of the simplest dishes of the evening, but no less impressive: Melfi’s use of sweet cipollini bulbs and eggplant enhance the earthiness of the tender slices of meat.
More than 175 bottles populate an Italian-leaning wine list, but there are some interesting outliers, including a 2018 pinot noir from Santa Barbara’s Tyler Winery. Which tells us something: Bajaj and his team are all about the art of surprise and have no intention of letting us forget.
1100 New York Ave. NW, 202.216.9550
Dinner: Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-10:30pm Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-2:30pm
Antipasti Trolley: $15-$20; lunch entrees: $23-$28; lunch pasta: $21-$28; dinner entrees: $28-$36; dinner pasta: $22-$28; desserts: $8-$12
Photography by: by Greg Powers