First Look: Moderno
By Anthony Todd in Food on May 1, 2012 7:00PM
Chicago foodies tend to ignore the suburbs, envisioning the outlying regions of our city as an endless concrete wasteland, filled with Olive Gardens and McDonalds. Chef John Des Rosiers has made it his mission to change our minds. Inovasi, Des Rosiers' Lake Bluff restaurant, has received accolade after accolade. Wisma, his gourmet take-out shop with locations in Lake Bluff, Libertyville and the Chicago French Market, brings great gourmet products to homes all over Chicagoland. Now comes Moderno, his latest restaurant, which opened in Highland Park on Monday.
At Moderno, the home-made, seasonal trend that has become a mainstay of fine dining is taken to the next level. Farms and purveyors aren't at the bottom of the menu here - they're at the top, as is the promise that everything in the restaurant is made by hand, from scratch. Des Rosiers has a story about every single dish, and the level of attention to detail is obvious. The simple-looking sardines (atop a single slice of toast, topped with fennel) even have a story - custom-pickled in the restaurant for a week. Des Rosiers has his own gin for the bar, specially created by a local distillery.
Its not just the farm products that innovate - surprises come from all sides of the Italian-infused menu. The table bread threatens to subsume entire meals; little bits of pizza dough are baked to a crisp and dusted with cheese, sized for continuous munching. Beef carpaccio, an 80s cliche so stale that it's rarely seen on menus, is revived using a much thicker cut so the Q7 ranch grass-fed beef tastes of itself, rather than of whatever fancy oil is drizzled atop it.
The menu will be confusing for some. It's extensive and all dishes are meant for sharing, with sections divided into smalls, salads, pizza, pasta and bigs. But don't worry about bringing a fussy eater - luckily, each section is arranged from simple to complex (rather than from low to high price, as we usually see), letting diners tailor their meal to their mood and preferences.
The decor manages to feel intensely modern while still avoiding the stark, soulless flavor of so many trendy restaurants. At night, when the lights are turned down low and a red glow suffuses the space, the vertical columns reaching up to Edison bulbs almost evoke a city skyline under a starry sky. Some may snark that this allows rich suburbanites to feel urban without actually having to deal with poor people, potholes and traffic, and they may be right. But if des Rosiers pulls off this ambitious menu, snark won't make any difference.
Moderno is located at 1850 Second St. in Highland Park.