Café Modern is a fitting antidote to modern art.
Peter Calvin

It's like Oz's wizard before the curtain is pulled: This picture, anchored at the end of a foggy-gray arching hallway, is a huge head glowing bright green, floating on a wall, tufts of hair reaching up into the air manically like flames stoked with ether. In another room rests an open book on a pedestal, wings made of lead outstretched from the covers.

The former is Andy Warhol's "Self-Portrait"; the latter Anselm Kiefer's "Book With Wings," two pieces in The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. In another room, three elderly women and a young woman in a pink blouse deploy folded stools in front of Jackson Pollock's "Masqued Image." The young woman earnestly prattles on about the social significance of the Pollock color splashes. The elderly women listen intently as they scrape tiny sketch pads with pencils.

Stretching from 1905, modern art, or the avant-garde, is a peculiar genre. It is rife with compelling moments, to be sure. It's nearly impossible to gaze at Fort Worth installations such as Gerhard Richter's broodingly beautiful "Sea Piece-Wave" or the ghostly structural precision of Vija Celmins' "German Plane" and not be moved. Yet a significant slice of this stuff, particularly from the decades since the guns of World War II went mute, never seems to rise above worn gestures of self-aggrandizing radicalism or tedious ideological hectoring. It's why these abstractions need essays of social commentary before the observer can even begin to pretend to be in sync with their winking slyness. While art generally can be understood as an attempt to express the deepest tide pools animating human existence--an experience that ideally transcends the work, the observer and the artist--much modern art seems inordinately preoccupied with itself. In Fort Worth, these head-scratching hyper-conceptualized exercises are encased in an envelope of dimpled concrete slabs, glass sheets and steel trusses designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

Shoehorning munchies into all of this heady abstraction is a challenge. Cuisine, as of yet, hasn't proven to be a very good vehicle for haughty social criticism or ideological browbeating, and it would taste like shit if it ever did. "We consider our menu global, which is a reflection of the museum itself," says Café Modern Executive Chef Dena Peterson. "The museum celebrates so many different artists from all over the world, and we try to reflect that in the menu." She elaborates: Café Modern lassos ingredients and flavors from all over the world, reflected in items like the Moroccan chicken salad or the Asian chop salad. Yet it is hardly a reflection; instead, it is an antidote.

The latter salad is a not-uncommon splurge of Napa cabbage, spice-cloaked and naked peanuts, snap peas, roasted peppers and cubes of hoisin-glazed chicken. A pair of bright red chopsticks ties off the expression.

But perhaps the most effective reflection of Café Modern's sweeping global quest is the smoked mozzarella-stuffed risotto cake. It's literally a globe, resting in a bloody bath of "light tomato sauce." This sphere is layered with alternating, overlapping leaves of baby spinach, upholstering the ball like quilt scraps. Lift those flaccid leaves and discover a brittle bronze sheath of fried panko bread crumbs. This globe doesn't glisten or glow like planet or nebula; instead it sucks up light like a tarnished penny. That bath is smooth and brisk, crackling with delicate acids. The ball crunches when pierced, exposing a steaming network of risotto grains--not creamy but breadlike in consistency. Plumb further and you unleash a core of molten smoked mozzarella that flows like slag through the risotto webbing, turning the whole thing into a creamy splurge.

Like this cake, Café Modern also sits on a pond. It's a shallow pool carpeted in stone. Large white chlorine tablets dot the shoreline to keep algae from blunting the museum's reflection. A museum worker putts along in a boat driven by a trolling motor, swallowing stray debris with a meshed scoop stapled to its bow, further polishing this liquid mirror--a fitting metaphor for modern art.

That's why this cafe is so important. It's a breath of fresh air in this hall of self-absorbed abstraction, one that is grounded in tradition and its Fort Worth roots, even as it respectfully twists those traditions and tendrils. The ubiquitous crab cake is here, but it's fresh. The cake, a squat cylindrical stub, is perched on three small slices of brittle fried green tomato. Yet strangely these green sections are almost tasteless, void of that wisp of acid. It would have worked well if they did have a brisk vein weaving through them because the cake, more crab shreds than lumps, is composed with minimal filler, heaving the weight of the meat's sweet richness to the foreground, where it begs for a foil. Instead that yearned-for acidic bite comes from dribbles of Creole mustard rémoulade crosshatched over the plate. Channels of paprika oil are woven through the network to provide visual contrast.

This interplay is more cogently expressed in the grilled jalapeño duck salad. Bib lettuce, elegant cups arranged in a heaping row, is draped with black-eyed pea dressing: a tangy mix of peas flecked with diced bell pepper and onion in a flood of sherry vinegar. At the foot of this ridge is a row of oval duck-breast slices, fanned on a curve near the rim of the plate. The meat is edged with scorched fat: black and gray easing into milky white leaching into shallow red that bleeds into a deep purple that almost goes black in the center. The burnt fat charges the silky meat with bitter rusticity, a shabbiness that even peeks through in pockets infested with gristle--yet you don't care. The dressing behaves like a salsa, bending and shaping the meat with its three-dimensional raciness while the pea-based dressing slyly traces the meatiness of the chewy duck.

What's at work here is respect for boundaries and roots, expressed in black-eyed peas, peppers and smoke, among other things. And out of that respect, new tensions and balances are composed. Yet when the Café Modern kitchen attempts simple, traditional satiation, it self-immolates. Grilled sirloin burger posited on a challah roll is a thing you'd expect to ring with the steady hum of perfection, especially in Fort Worth. But it was an odious wretch. Ordered medium rare, the meat was an inky collage of jet black and battleship gray jacketed in thick cheddar yellow. The meat was stiff, dry and bitter--little unlike chewing on a thick pancake of congealed ash. Seasoned fries were delicious, though.

Eggs collapse, too. Though it is striped with a brilliant bead of red pepper coulis, the "modern omelet" is cold, dry and rubbery with weak flavors; save for whatever the asparagus flecks can muster. It was near impossible to pick out the brie cheese that was listed on the menu as an ingredient.

But culinary heft was eloquently recaptured in the Tuscan roasted vegetable sandwich, perhaps the best veggie pack you're likely to chew on. Punched between slices of ciabatta bread, this monstrously bulky but operable sandwich was packed with mushrooms, onions, red peppers and mozzarella held together with smears of artichoke aioli.

Café Modern is a soothing foil to the chilly intellectual narcissism that often sweats from the pores of the modern and postmodern art epidermis. It dazzles with innovation and novelty while it celebrates ordinary experience. And that's what you need after an avant-garde binge.

3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth, 817-840-2157. Open 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. $$

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Cafe Modern

3200 Darnell St.
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