No Flash, All Pan

The Modern and its hardworking Chef Phillip Becht define what it really means to be a Midwestern cook

The Modern Cafe
337 13th Avenue NE
Minneapolis
612.378.9882

There've been a lot of flashes in the pan around here lately, what with all the coast-dwelling chef-kings setting up local shops, and all the new million-dollar restaurants where they fling around calamari bowls the size of sinks. As flashes will, they have tended to distract from things that really matter—like, for instance, what it means to be a real Minnesota chef. A real, hard-working, nobody-notices, 16,000-burgers-behind-you, 16,000-burgers-ahead-of-you lifer with love in your heart for the recipient of burger 16,001.

Phillip Becht is just such a chef. He took over the kitchen at northeast Minneapolis's Modern Cafe three years ago, and for three years I've been meaning to write about him. And for three years it never happened. Did he care? Not really.

Don't your pancakes taste sweeter when you know that the folks who brought them to you have health care? Phillip Becht (front right) and the Modern staff
Daniel Corrigan
Don't your pancakes taste sweeter when you know that the folks who brought them to you have health care? Phillip Becht (front right) and the Modern staff

Location Info

Map

Modern Cafe

337 13th Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Northeast Minneapolis

"I get beet-red when I do an interview," he says. "My natural insecurity about my work kicks in, and I get really nervous." Also, Becht is a true Minnesota chef, and so is used to critics with the attention span of magpies among crystal. Besides, he had burgers to flip.

I care though, especially after a recent series of visits to the Modern that left me dazzled with the kitchen's laid-back excellence, its flawless good-soldier competence, its great simple work. At dinner I had a pan-roasted chicken ($18.25) that was washed with clarified butter and dark beer until the skin was as dark as mahogany, the flesh as tender as tears. This excellent bird came beside a winter-spiced wild rice pilaf with apples that was fluffy, nutty, and deliciously simple in the way that only wild rice cooked all day can be. One nightly special offered a perfect, beauty-and-the-beast dance between sweet and tender Prince Edward Island mussels and bold, gutsy, smoked-paprika-and-chorizo broth. The mussels arrived beside a drinking glass filled with French fries and a little bowl of garlic-touched aioli, prompting my date to pay the dish a high compliment: "It's like we're on vacation."

A beet salad ($8.75) was smartly constructed, the warm beets dressed in a forthright mustard-and-caraway vinaigrette, with bits of gorgonzola melting alongside them in their steamy little home. Meanwhile, above the beets and cheese, a pouf of bristly frisée acted as an edible tea-cozy, keeping the beets from cooling and also adding texture and snap to the composition. A side dish of roasted brussels sprouts ($6.25) nestled in a taleggio fondue was so rich and intense, I hereby crown it the chocolate truffle of the cruciferous vegetable world.

The Modern's legendary pot roast ($16.50) has never been better, the meat as soft as nostalgia, and as real as the future, the garlic mashed potatoes silky, the roast carrots made almost fudge-like through the concentrating effects of long cooking. Come to think of it, I'd rather have more of those carrots than the desserts, the Modern's only current weak spot. I tried both a lackluster apple crumble and a not-quite-right chocolate crème brûlée, each costing $6.50 and sized to share. I recommend, instead, marshalling your dollars for further exploration of the excellent wine list, which is particularly strong in uncommon wines priced in the $20 and $30 range. Better still, on Tuesdays all bottles are half price.

At brunch one day I showed up with a proper horde of out-of-town guests and kiddies, and was delighted not just with the quality of the grown-up food but also with the way a pre-emptive order of pancakes ($4) for the babies practically flew onto the table. At that brunch I sampled a delightful, thick sausage gravy which ennobled a pair of moist brown biscuits and eggs ($7.50), and also a lush version of pampered eggs made with bacon, well-browned mushrooms, and lots of cream cheese ($7.75).

In sum, all is better than ever at the Modern, which has been doing its neighborhood retro thing since 1994. Is this news? Not really. The dining room has been more or less packed at the Modern since around about 1997.

What is news, at least to this critic, is how much the life and current work of chef Phillip Becht says about the state of pan-wielding in this town, flashy and otherwise.

I've long been peripherally aware of Phillip Becht, though mostly as Steven Brown's second in command—Brown, of course, being the renowned chef of, most recently, Restaurant Levain; and before that of odd, doomed, kind of wonderful Rockstar; and, even further in the mists of time, of the dear, departed original Loring Bar and Cafe. It turns out that Becht, now 40, got his start at that selfsame Loring when he was 18. He was fresh to Minneapolis back then, after a childhood spent as a nomadic Air Force brat, and a high school career spent in Rapid City, South Dakota.

"I was just the kid who swept up at night," Becht told me when I interviewed him by phone for this story. "I'd sweep up real slowly and watch the bigwigs: J.P. [Samuelson, now of jP American Bistro] was the chef, before he went off to New York. But just seeing how he did things, how fast he moved, how everyone revered him, blew me away. I knew I wanted to do what the bigwigs were doing, and my big in was that when they were done I would make the artichoke ramekin.

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