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Monday, July 30, 2018

Born of Disappointment

From the Food Vault: The expected life of a restaurant is, sadly, brief. Unless it’s a chain with endless advertising money behind it, able to drum its culinary marching orders into the skulls of the frightened masses, a restaurant has to succeed on merits that too much of the dining public fails to appreciate. Thus it is that both of the places mentioned below – MOD Gourmet Café and Retriever Rasters – have departed from Catskill. As my review suggests, it wasn’t my fault.


WE PERFORM AN ACT OF GREAT TRUST when we order from an unfamiliar restaurant. Much anticipation may lie behind it: a long stretch on the highway, a diversion for the family, a gathering of colleagues. Our palates are whetted by remembrances of meals past, our hopes sharpened by the menu’s promises.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
And then we’re served the driest, most flavorless omelette imaginable.

“It’s fair to say that our restaurant was born out of disappointment,” says Mary DiStefano, co-owner of MOD Gourmet Café on Catskill’s Main Street. “So often you sit down for food that you hope will be good – and it never is.”

She and partner Dana Wegener worked in a number of restaurants before opening their own place nearly three years ago, and MOD Gourmet Café excellently satisfies any reasonable breakfast and lunch expectations.

We’re not talking about old-school diner fare, however. Three-egg omelettes ($7) are crafted around spinach, feta and sun-dried tomatoes, or home fries, cheddar and hot sauce, or home-grown herbs and goat cheese, among other cheese-rich combos.

The breakfast menu ranges from oatmeal with raisins and almonds ($4) and Tree-Hugger Organic Granola ($5) to the aforementioned omelettes, which latter also can be enjoyed as a breakfast wrap for the same price. Eggs any style? Name it: one for $4, two for $5, with two sides of your choice. Sides including home fries, thick-cut bacon, an English muffin, a non-English muffin, croissant and toast.

Need a tasty trip to carbs land? Buttermilk hotcakes with local maple syrup and a choice of berries or whipped cream or (if there’s no stopping you) chocolate chips are $7. And there are two styles of Texas toast ($7): with a brown-sugary bananas foster topping or crowned with an Irish whisky sauce and homemade candied walnuts.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Lunch sounds a different note. Salads and sandwiches are the categories, each occupying a menu page. There are times when I have to be dragged screaming to a menu like this, panicking at the lack of burgers and Reubens and fries. Much as I enjoy such bad-for-you fare, I can juxtapose the experience of having one of the world’s worst Reubens (spelled incorrectly on the menu, of course, at place whose identity I’ll mercifully not reveal) a couple of days before tucking into the fabulous Mediterranean Plate ($9) here at MOD.

I’m a hummus snob, prizing my own super-garlicky blend above all others, but I’m willing to make room for DiStefano’s preparation. It’s more user-friendly than mine, but doesn’t sacrifice the essentials of flavor of the dish, like cumin. Not to mention that it’s served with a few slices of homemade ciabatta (Wegener is the baker) that complement it well. Stuffed grape leaves, kalamata olives, piquant chunks of feta and cous cous-based tabbouleh finish the plate, beautifully arranged and setting off the red of the tablecloth nicely.

If the component items aren’t coming from their own garden, the restaurant looks to other local sources. Hudson Valley Spinach salad sports local mushrooms with hardboiled egg slices and fresh bacon bits ($9).

The Greek salad, which my daughter enjoyed, is built on romaine hearts, sharing with mine the feta, kalamata olives and stuffed grape leaves, but it also has tomato and cucumber slices, and she chose to top it with grilled chicken ($9 plus $2).

My friend Bob chose the Mexican Stand-Off, a whimsical $10 salad featuring seasoned flank steak (or chicken or tofu) on romaine with tomatoes, cucumbers and tortilla chips, along with black bean salsa, lime-flavored sour cream and chimichurri. A hearty sprinkling of cilantro made the salad especially good.

Other combos of greens and meat and garnish are similarly priced – if you opt for the MOD fusion ($8), you’ll get gorgonzola, sliced pears and the aforementioned candied walnuts among the greens.

Sandwiches, priced from $7-$10, are served on your choice of homemade white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel or in a wrap. Hummus and feta and greens mix with tapenade in the Greek veggie sandwich; in another, flank steak, lettuce, tomatoes and onions get a shot of buffalo-blue cheese dressing.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Others are built around Angus beef, turkey breast (with cheddar and Granny Smith apples), mozzarella in combo with tomatoes, roasted red peppers and onions, chicken salad, tuna and more.

With a successful breakfast and lunch business have come demands for dinner, which MOD at first met with a four-course prix-fixe meal the second Saturday of each month. A bargain at $35, it sells out at least a month in advance. “And we do at least two, usually three seatings at that dinner,” adds DiStefano. “So at the beginning of the year we added another dinner. Every Thursday, it’s Mexican night.” Served from 5-8:30, the à la carte menu includes burritos, enchiladas, tacos and more. “That’s a busy dinner for us, too, bringing in up to 60 people, which isn’t bad for a 28-seat dining room.”

I also want to throw in a mention of MOD’s across-the-street neighbor, Retriever Roasters (394 Main St., Catskill), where owner Robert Lugo not only knows his coffee but also served me the finest cappuccino I’ve tasted, turning what was meant to be a grab-a-cup-and-go into a pleasant half-hour at one of the coffeehouse’s tables.

MOD Gourmet Café
, 395 Main St., Catskill. Serving breakfast Mon-Fri 8-10:45, lunch Mon-Fri 10:45-3. Mexican night: Thu 5-8:30. AE, MC, V. (But now closed.)

Metroland Magazine, 26 February 2009

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