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Dec 9, 2006 07:12 AM

Modus - San Diego

This week my wife and I had the chance to visit Modus after we heard so much positive things about it. We were also interested because two favorite restaurants (Region and Café Cerise) have already closed or will close soon and we are always looking for new restaurants who use local ingredients and have similar approaches toward good but simple food. Another interesting aspect was that we very recently ate at Thomas Kellers Bouchon in Las Vegas which also serves very similar bistro food as Modus for the same price. So we had a lot to compare.
The first impression of Modus was very good. Modus has a nice, relaxed ambience with good music (at least at the beginning when no DJ was around.)
As appetizers we had the Spinach and Prosciutto salad and the Fresh Burrata and Tomato Salad. Both salads were rather boring with no surprising tastes (e.g. average dressing etc.) and the spinach salad was way too cold and obviously directly out of the fridge.
For the entrees we decided to order the same dishes we had at Bouchon so we could directly compare them with Modus.
The first entrée was the Steak Frites. This is an interesting dish because the chef has more or less only two ingredients, meat and potatoes, and it was surprising to see how different the quality of the product can be. The pommes frites at Bouchon are very much hyped in many books, e.g. Bourdain etc, and I think they are very good but definitely not the best in the world as some people claim. I had similar or better ones in France, Germany or England but still they were a revelation compared to the pommes frites at Modus. Similar the steak, Bouchon with one of the best steaks I ever had, literally melting in your mouth whereas the one at Modus was average at best.
The second entrée were the braised short ribs. Modus serves them with mashed potatoes and some carrots and pearl onions all mixed together in one bowl which make it complicated to taste the different components of the meal and it is easier to mask average quality. Bouchon has a better approach by having everything on one plate but not mixing it. In addition they have more and a larger variety of vegetable and serve the meat as one piece including the bones (and if you cook from Molly Stevens book you know the importance of the bones for the taste for braising). Again it was evident that two cooks with pretty much the same ingredients don’t come up with the same quality of food. But also in comparison to the meals at Region and Cerise Modus lacks quality and creativity.
The highlight of the meal at Modus was the espresso and cappucino. Definitely some of the best shots we ever had in a restaurant much better than at Bouchon where they don’t care too much about the coffee.
For dessert we had the smores (way too sweet) and passionfruit/white chocolate mousse tarte (better choice).
Overall the meal at Modus was not really bad but also nothing exceptional. There are many places in San Diego where you can get much better food for the same price.
And coming back to the questions/comparisons from the beginning: Bouchon and Modus serve very similar French bistro food for the same price but it is alarming to see the big difference of quality of both kitchens. Modus is not even close to Bouchon.
But more surprisingly it is also, as somebody else wrote some days ago on Chowhound, a travesty that restaurants as Café Cerise have to close because they don’t have enough customers when they deliver food on a much higher level but for the same price as restaurants like Modus which are just more popular because they are more trendy. I really hope that a good chef should be more important than a trendy DJ.

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  1. Honkman, you and I usually have similar tastes and impressions about restaurants in San Diego - tho' I do think you're a little more critical than I - and I had dinner at Modus last Friday night and was very pleased with it. Except for the S'mores dessert, you're right on that, it is W-A-Y, W-A-Y too sweet, major misstep in my book.

    I don't think I'd characterize Modus as a French bistro, as much as an upscale casual place cooking fresh food as simply as it can. I'm not getting that French buzz or feel from it. The older I get, the more I appreciate fresh and simple. Truthfully, my palatte gets fatiqued by all the over the top, ill-conceived, shock value flavor profiles and tastes.

    I had the Belgian Endive Salad with Roquefort which was nothing if not a study in white. The plate was white, the cheese was almost all white, the belgian endives were white, the dressing was white. The Roquefort was the only component that really added much flavor, this was a remarkably mild dish considering the cheese, but I was actually okay with that. My friend Pat had the Avocado and Beet salad. I'm not sure I think this is the best pairing in the world, but the presentation was certainly beautiful if not creative.

    Pat had the duck confit w/foie gras. She loves duck and liked her entree. I work with a chef who happened to eat at Modus 2 weeks ago. His take on the duck was that it was one of the best renditions in the city. He wasn't so wild about the rest of the menu, and HATED the dessert menu. Knowing Nathan Coulon's pedigree, I would guess that the duck is probably the old Belgian Lion duck. I got a taste of the greenpeppercorn red wine reduction that came with the duck. I thought it a bit sharp, but that works with the richness of the duck

    I had the pork tenderloin which was really quite good. I got more thick slices of pork than I was expecting and it was very juicy and tender. And since pork is my favorite meat and it is often overcooked and tasteless because of the lack of fat, I was happy with what I was served. There was a mustard sauce made with grain mustard that accompanied the pork that I thought was good, though perhaps a bit too meek.

    I liked my meal. Is it possible to get better meals in San Diego? Of course. Tapenade, Asia Vous, Vincents, the Marine Room and El Biz come to mind immediately. One of the things I appreciated was the small size of the menu, my chef friend thought it was too small. I tend to vasilate too much with big menus and always end up changing my mind and then wondering if I missed out on something really good, or better than what I got. I'd rather have a smaller menu so the kitchen can focus on doing well what's on the menu.

    I thought your approach of comparing the two restaurants interesting and not a bad idea. An observation I'd like to make is that Las Vegas has an established (albeit young) fine dining culture, San Diego is still trying to find and establish a fine dining identity. As such, the diversity, quality and sheer availability of products in Las Vegas is better and in a lot of cases superior to what's available in SD. The food purveying industry in Vegas is vast, intense and very cut-throat with Vegas moving a far higher volume (quantity and dollars) of product than San Diego. Also, since Bouchon is part of Thomas Keller's restaurant empire, it's got all of Keller's not insignificant resources upon which to draw. For resources Modus probably had whatever Nathan Coulon could get from the bank, and maybe family or investors. I think the comparison you described really illustrates this dynamic. Bouchon has better resources - food and money - available all the way around than does Modus, and it showed.

    I don't think Modus is aspiring to be the best resto in San Diego. I think at this point they're probably just aspiring to good cook some good food and stay in business. I'm going back, and I'd like to see them stay in business for a number of years. I suspect they will only improve as the chef/owner gets older and, like good wine, continues to improve with age ;-)

    13 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva

      I think what disappointed us most at Modus was that all dishes were without any surprise and didn't have any unexpected twists. We still talk about a salad we had at Cafe Cerise which had fennel (but not described in the menu) which we both normally don't like but the taste was so surprising and unexpected and fit perfect with the rest of the salad. Or we still rave about the veal cheeks we had a Cafe Cerise with unusual spices, vegetables and sauces where you feel that the chef really thought about the dish. With Modus I never had the impression that the chef really tried hard to make the dishes special or something to remember but was just cooking standard stuff. And as I said in other posts before I don't care how much I pay for a good meal but I am always interested to compare prices and quality of different restaurants and I felt that Modus is rather expensive (if not overpriced) for what we got out of the kitchen.
      I also agree that Keller most likely has better resources and better line cooks due to his reputation but on the other hand independently from which school you are coming (and that is not only valid for cooking) you should know your basics. This basics have nothing to do what kind of resources you have but how much you care about your work, business and customers and here I really hope that Modus will grow and learn here.
      And as you I really hope that Modus will stay in business because it will help all other new restaurants in town but as this point they are missing a lot in terms of good food. (And I have to agree with your friend the dessert menu sucks. We had problems to pick two desserts)

      1. re: honkman

        I agree the dessert menu is not very good. None of the choices really screamed out "try me". I mean, how many versions of flourless chocolate cake or lava cake, or black out cake do we need to try. I thought it was kind of ironic that the dessert menu is the weakest part of the menu in that all the desserts are provided by his mother (Michelle Coulon), who is alledged to be one of the best bakers in SD.

        I understand where you're coming from with your comment about nothing surprising your taste buds. But I'm not entirely sure that's exactly what Modus is trying to do. I don't think they're trying to create something unexpected, to me it was more like they were just trying to do the usual things, but do them very well. Based on our two different dining experience, it certainly sounds like they're doing some things better than others. After your comments now I'm interested to go back to try the steak frites

        I went in with few expectations. When people (especially here) start recommending a restaurant as being a "must go" I always wonder if it's because it's really that good, or if the herd mentality has taken over and people think it's good because everyone else does. I thought Modus was good, but not great. I really liked the understated interior (they spent all their money on the dining rooms and bar, did you see the bathrooms ;->) and the relaxed atmosphere. Our service was very good, better than many places in town, and the staff was making routine trips through the dining room checking on tables.

        1. re: honkman

          According to the owners of Modus, their goal is to serve comfort food in a casual atmosphere. Given that, I don't know why one would expect something they are making no claims to offer.

          1. re: Josh

            One of my points was that they didn't cover the basics. It is fine if you want to serve comfort food but than serve good comfort food. At this point I think that their food is average at the most in quality for the price you pay. That I would like to see any restaurant to try to make any dish unique is another issue.

            1. re: honkman

              Quality wasn't so much the issue for me. Aside from the hideiously sweet S'mores dessert - which I think we're all in agreement about - the actual quality of the food I had was pretty good and I didn't think I was overcharged for what I got. I think the bigger problem may be that they're somewhat inconsistent, i.e. being wonderful on one visit and not so wonderful the next and so on. It's interesting, I've heard more negative comments about Modus in the last 3 weeks than I've heard since it opened. Which would lead me to ask - what's changed?

              And I think I would agree with whoever said Modus might still be trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. My chef friend and Honkman both made similar comments about the volume and distraction of the music. My chef friend - who was in the bar - went even further and said he was a little put off by the seedy nature of some of the overly tatted patrons who were clearly close friends of the chef/owner. When I ate there 10 days ago, it was earlier in the evening and there was no music and the crowd was mostly professionals in the 35-55 age range. It's a fine line to walk between attracting two very different client bases and trying to keep them both happy. It's probably easier to do one client base of the other well than to try and do them both, which could, no doubt, lead to an identity crisis for a resto.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                Interesting comments. My last visit was probably about 6-7 weeks ago. We always go early in the evening, and the crowd is as you describe.

                I would say I'm not judging Modus against places like Cerise or George's (despite the pricing), but against my memory of the Belgian Lion. There, the food was simple and homey. I can't think of a comparable place in town, except maybe Thee Bungalow.

                1. re: Josh

                  I don't think that the food at Modus is so unique for SD. I had comparable food (simple comfort food) at Terra, Region. And there are few more I haven't tried (but they are on my list) but I heard (and see) on their menu that they serve comparable food: Cavaillon, La Bastide, Cafe Chloe, Chez Loma, Le Passage etc.

                  1. re: honkman

                    Of that list, I've eaten at La Bastide and Cafe Chloe. Personally, I prefer Modus to either.

                2. re: DiningDiva

                  To be honest I have no problem with loud music. I was more surprised that they changed the music so drastically, first good rock music (without the DJ) and than rather annoying trance (with the DJ). But overall the music wasn't really something we had to complain too much, it really was the quality of the food. As Alice_Q mentioned the steak frites was not good (I was particular disappointed by the fries. Nobody will believe me but I had better ones at In-n-Out at a few occasions) and the short ribs were ok. Both salads were too basic and the spinach salad too cold (we even briefly thought about to send it back). Overall we had six dishes and three of them were average (short ribs, one salad and one dessert) and three of them below average (steak frites, spinach salad and smores). And average isn't in comparison to Bouchon but to other restaurants in SD, like Terra, California Cuisine, Region etc.)

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    we're going to Modus in a few weeks, early in the evening and will see how it fares, given the commments on this post. I do have to say that I really enjoyed our dinner there, especially the french fries which I liked better than In-n-Out (crunchy, fresh, not greasy). I thought their fries were like a thicker version of Cafe Chloe's.

                    Ironically, we ate at Bouchon a few years back and I was not knocked over by our dinner. It was good but something was "missing." I'm not sure what it was--the food itself, if it wasn't what I was expecting or it wasn't the kind of food I wanted to eat that night. Given that, I haven't had a strong desire to return.

                  2. re: honkman

                    I have to agree with honkman. The best dishes on the night we dined there were the duck, which was worth the trip in and of itself, and the soup which was a special made from fresh Chino corn. I was unimpressed with the steak (I have had much better steak frites at Cafe Chloe) and the short ribs. I didn't try the fourth entree, but it didn't get raves. I thought the salads were a little too basic, as well as the dessert, but I don't think we ordered very well on that.

                    I might rate the food as better than "average" - since Bouchon is by no means average, but I definitely see what you are saying about hoping for something a little more innovative and interesting. As much as I wanted to like Modus because it's local and independent, I was also a little disappointed. I'm not in a tremendous hurry to go back.

                3. re: honkman

                  thank you for the kind support over the years

                  1. re: jason seibert

                    Sorry to see Cerise close. I still think about the charcuterie plate.

              2. Thanks to both Honkman and DiningDiva! Two fantastic posts that illustrated beautifully the old axiom about eye (or palate) of the beholder -- though I'm sure to avoid the S'mores at Modus at all costs.

                Even though Honkman's review wasn't exactly complimentary, if I were Nathan Coulon, I wouldn't feel too depressed about finishing second to Kitchen God Thomas Keller. In any event, it was instructive to see how two very knowledgeable and discriminating diners could come to such different conclusions. It also highlights a point that I think is often forgotten: good cooking is as much the product of art as it is of science. It's not exact, so one night's "best ever" entree can turn ordinary -- or less -- on the very next night. It's only with time and repetition that we can really make a sensible judgment.

                Even so, I'm betting that DJ had *something* to do with Honkman's obvious heartburn.
                . . . jim strain in san diego.
                p.s. I thought Coulon's Belgian fries were some of the best I'd ever eaten.

                1. I have also dined there, and was not impressed. I think they are uncertain about who they want to attract. People who will spend $ for good food, or people who will by drinks and listen to DJ JAZZY TREVEOR. Their website boasts their DJ's also. I found the desserts overly sweet and lacking imagination. I also agree about the bowl of food concept. I am not one of those who mind if their food touches something else, but I also want to sample the individual flavors on their own, before I decide if the tastes should mingle.

                  They should also offer a better selection of starters that can be shared by a couple.

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