At Thoroughly Modern MoMA, Elegant Dining and a Chic Bar

Each time I called the Modern to make a reservation, without fail I was put on hold. Soon I knew the recorded message by heart. It took the form of a mantra: “Thank you for calling the Modern, located on … stylish business attire is worn by most of the guests in the main dining room …. “

Stylish business attire? I began to imagine what Van Gogh, Mondrian or Pollock would look like dressed in Armani suits and Turnbull and Asser shirts, sitting at one of the restaurant’s brown leather horseshoe banquettes, discussing life and art over tuna tartare scallops and orange-dusted lamb served under silver domes. On second thought, perhaps they’d prefer a steak in the barroom? 

The new, expanded MoMA now has two restaurants, the Modern and Cafe 2. (Dining, along with shopping, seems to have become as integral a part of museum-going these days as looking at art.) The museum’s café/bar is more casual, serving fashionable “small plates”; the Modern’s formal dining room has a prix-fixe menu at a patron’s price of $74. Both restaurants are run by Danny Meyer, whose empire includes Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, and both share the same kitchen under Alsatian chef Gabriel Kreuther, who was formerly at Atelier in the Ritz Carlton.

To get to the main restaurant, you walk through the barroom, with its long, white marble bar and an entire back wall covered by a misty Thomas Demand photograph of a forest. I passed a table where a man wore his hair in a bun, held in place with two ivory chopsticks-stylish, hip-and entered the Modern’s formal dining room, which is behind an opaque glass wall. It’s airy and elegant, done in a subdued palette of brown, gray and white. Enormous windows look out onto the sculpture garden, where a Calder provides a splash of red that pulls the whole picture together.

Mr. Kreuther’s menu fits well into this cool, unfussy setting. His food is original and scrupulously innovative: multifaceted dishes that demand your attention, beginning with an array of colorful “amuses bouches” sent from the kitchen when you sit down-miniature gougère with caviar, Arctic char tartare, yellow chèvre mousse, morel mushroom “foam,” asparagus vichyssoise, meyer lemon scallop.

Among the appetizers, the buckwheat soup was outstanding, a creamy concoction laced with soy sprouts and a poached egg floating in the center. The sweet-pea soup was wonderful, too, with a texture like satin, poured over a mound of barley and topped with crème fraîche. A slab of sautéed foie gras came with a rich, complex sauce made with Trappist ale, and juicy langoustines wrapped in bacon were matched with a spicy yogurt dressing and cardamom oil. The ubiquitous tuna tartare took on new life in Mr. Kreuther’s hands, cut into small cubes with scallops and combined with American caviar on thin circles of cucumber.

But I found some of Mr. Kreuther’s other dishes fussy and overcomplicated, reading better than they tasted, and not as exciting as his cooking at Atelier. The trouble has to do with inconsistency in the kitchen. Escargots in a “gateau” made with potatoes, scallions and ginger-flavored parsley jus sounded great, but the potatoes were undercooked and the combination was disappointingly wan. So was a salad of chopped celery root and oysters, formed into a wedge with almond cream and spread with American caviar. Turbot, perfectly poached in buttermilk, didn’t get any help from a tasteless clove mousseline with sea urchin. The chicken trio-mousse sausage, poached leg and sautéed breast stuffed with herbs-was served with morels that had a good earthy taste, but the dish as a whole didn’t sparkle.

And yet I’ve never had a better piece of buffalo tenderloin, which was poached in spiced cabernet and cut like butter. A filet of cod covered with a crust made of thin scales of chorizo was matched with a purée of white coco beans and harissa oil-another brilliant dish. The spice-crusted sturgeon was no less stellar, braised in pink grapefruit juice with chunks of grapefruit and served with caramelized endive. Roast lobster was lovely, served in a signature Kreuther herb broth with asparagus and salsify.

Pastry chef Marc Aumont’s desserts include a superb lemon millefeuille made with paper-thin layers of crisp pastry stuffed with papaya, mango, blood orange and passion fruit, as well as a knockout chocolate soufflé. There’s also a caramel parfait enlivened with mango marmalade and a 10-flavor sorbet (get all 10 and go to the head of the class) and buttermilk panna cotta with pomegranate sorbet, pineapple and aged balsamic vinegar.

Next, on to the barroom: I loved it. It’s fun. Because there was a short wait for the table, our waiter gave us a free Alsatian tarte flambé, made with gruyère, bacon and onion on a thin crust, which we ate by the bar. Astonishingly, the room didn’t seem at all noisy; despite the crowd and the hard surfaces, the acoustics are great. Mr. Kreuther’s bar menu puts some of his less adventurous customers to the test. Dishes such as baekoffe of lamb, conch and tripe and eel rillettes with turnips and horseradish sauce would’ve been enjoyable if they hadn’t been so bland. Twin oysters arrived on a green glass dish that looked like a spa eye mask, overwhelmed by a thick layer of salty American caviar. Goat cheese wrapped in bacon-a conceit I didn’t get-was served with an otherwise perfectly good herb salad. And chunks of lobster were overkill in a pleasant artichoke soup.

My favorite dish was made with Serrano ham topped with a poached egg and served with cockles and a garlic-almond sauce. This Spanish-inspired combination was pure heaven: When you put a fork into the egg, the yolk commingled with the sauce and the saline taste of the cockles. Diver scallops coated with poppy seeds were also terrific, as was a melting, slow-poached filet of wild salmon in a horseradish crust, served with cabbage and Riesling.

Despite the ups and downs of the food, both MoMA restaurants are a treat to be in; they’re also overwhelmingly popular, as the long wait for a table testifies. Recently, I ran into a friend and asked her what she thought of the new MoMA. Without missing a beat, she replied: “The barroom was more fun than the main restaurant, but both were good.” I didn’t ask what she thought of the museum.