Our way

Modo Mio offers its Italian unadorned but not unappreciated

Modo Mio tags itself as "cucina rustica Italiana," but we could tell by the voice on the phone that it didn't entirely fit that description. And sure enough, when we arrived we were greeted at the door by the stylish blonde attached to that voice, fashionably dressed in an understated way, casually but impeccably coiffed. The to-the-core chic and the accent were both unmistakably French, and not even a little bit rustica. I can only guess we were looking askance at her, because she was quick with reassurance: "Don't panic," she said. "I am Fr-r-rench, but I don't kook. Zee chef eez Eetalian and a vairy good kook."

So what do you expect from a restaurant whose name translates to "My Way"?
It's a restaurant of stubborn idiosyncrasy. In a business that studies trends as if they were the Talmud and then follows them as if they were step-by-step instructions to enlightenment, Modo Mio does indeed do things its own way. Martine Varlet and her partner in the kitchen, chef Rino Brigliadori, had planned to open a Dallas sibling to their popular trattoria in Pacific Palisades and to run both restaurants from Dallas. But it was too hard flying back and forth, and anyway they liked the people better in Texas, so they sold their restaurant in Los Angeles to concentrate on the one in Dallas, reputedly one of the toughest restaurant markets in the country. Does this make sense?

And Modo Mio has also contradicted the compass points of Dallas dining, which traditionally call for a restaurant to establish itself on McKinney or in Deep Ellum before opening a branch up north. But from way far north on Frankford Road (in the location formerly occupied by San Remo), Martine and Rino seem to have overcome Dallasites' natural geographical prejudice--Modo Mio attracts regular diners from Uptown, downtown, Preston Hollow, and Park Cities, people who swear they never venture north of LBJ.

Not only that: though the menu does offer tiramisu, portobello mushrooms, and Caesar salad, all only semi-"Eetalian" dishes and all at the top of the trend list, most of the food at Modo Mio looks and tastes out of the ordinary in that it's astonishingly straightforward, striking in its simplicity. This chef isn't interested in a competition with Philip Johnson--there is no "tall" food on Rino's menu. Neither, traveling back through trend-time, is the rim of the plate dusted with powdered sugar or ground herbs. Most dishes seem to contain only a handful of ingredients, and not all of those are listed in the menu descriptions. "Grilled veal chop with herbs" is a typically elusive description. Which herbs? Grilled over what? Where did this veal come from? What comes with it? What is it garnished with? It's so nice not to know, so refreshing not to be told in elaborate detail.

In fact, the food is downright minimalist in its presentation as well as its description. This kitchen doesn't even waste its time with parsley.

Instead, the chef's time seems to be spent on the food itself--all of which, according to Martine, is cooked to order. If a diner doesn't like garlic, she says, it's not a problem, because nothing is prepared ahead. (Why a diner who doesn't like garlic is eating in an Italian restaurant is another problem.) A good example was the appetizer of portobello mushrooms, brought to us still hot and sizzling--obviously, the meaty chunks had been popped into a pan slicked with olive oil as soon as we ordered, seared quickly with a little garlic and parsley, then slipped out on to the hot plate and served. That was it. Mushrooms on a plate. But they were served hot, as food so seldom is these days, when the elaborate garniture and plate composition requires its presence in the kitchen long after the cooking is finished. And these mushrooms had no more seasoning than required to make them taste even more like themselves. They were wonderful by themselves or with the thick-crusted yeast bread and a glass of the house Chianti. They'd be good balanced on a piece of the crackling-thin focaccia, too.

"Insalata Modo Mio" was a plate of paler greens than are generally considered chic in these days of dark and bitter leaves--torn escarole leaves and pale moons of sliced fennel shining with a lightly acidic and beautifully oiled vinaigrette were given substance by unremarkable tomatoes and two slices of some of the best mozzarella I've had in a while. Made from buffalo milk, which is about twice as rich as cow's milk, this cheese is imported from Italy and had a shortness of texture and a dairy freshness that set it apart from most mozzarella. Martine would like to find a source closer to home, but I know from Dallas' Mozzarella Company that good buffalo milk is hard to find.

The unadorned soup of the day, vegetable with a twist, was not embellished with so much as a swirl of cream. The cooked vegetables had merely been pureed to the consistency of thick broth and seasoned so it had all the complexity of a good vegetable soup in each anonymous, pumpkin-colored spoonful. "Mosaica de peperoni" was a little prettier than most plates, but only because red and yellow peppers are themselves prettier. Flat roasted and peeled squares of pepper flesh glistening with olive oil were arranged side-by-side on the chilled plate with slices of goat cheese and sundried tomatoes as sweet and dark as cherries.

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