Editor’s Note: Modern Cafe is now closed.
The first thing most newcomers notice about the Modern Cafe is the giant marlin, displayed casually over the bar like it’s no big thing at all. Though it seems totally idiosyncratic and maybe a little ostentatious, one could say that the fish embodies the project of the restaurant as a whole. Along with its grungy cohorts on the 13th Ave block, the Modern sits on the front lines of the gentrification of Nordeast, keeping it weird for the neighborhood’s bohemian holdouts.
If your favorite Minnesotan dad band moved out of the garage and opened a restaurant, this would be it. The sleek, upholstered bar seems to have been plucked right out of an empty nester’s basement (in a good way), and the huge booth seats skirt the line between intimidating and comfortable, like a parent’s favored chair. Befittingly, the clientele runs the gamut from bourgeois fifty-somethings to red-eyed musicians-cum-service industry workers, sometimes even at the same table.
The Modern’s menu tends to be all over the map, though more so at lunch and dinner than breakfast. With its chilaquiles, pot roast potato hash, and Larry Schultz-derived egg dishes, the Modern’s breakfast is distinctly Minneapolitan. Their Scallion Biscuits and Sausage Gravy ($9) tends to run out fairly quickly on the weekends, and for good reason: The housemade biscuits are a panacea for any and all post-bender ailments. Sadly, the Bloody Beer ($5) uses premade Bloody Mary mix, inexcusable in a city littered with amazing variations on the drink. Finally, be aware that you may have to wait for a table during brunch hours.
At lunch and dinner, Chef Phillip Becht mixes and matches curry, miso, and harissa with ease; accordingly, the menu’s most appealing dishes come off like classics from some imaginary country. Bravely cackling in the face of regional authenticity, he garnishes Danish smørrebrød with spicy-sweet harissa and swaps in wheat berries for rice in a miso broth risotto. However, the menu also features some relatively conservative takes on American dishes, such as a truffled macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, and the pot roast.
As far as signature dishes go, the Modern’s Pot Roast ($16.75) rules the roost, inspiring a rabid fan base and even a “Legalize Pot Roast” bumper sticker. Served with mashed potatoes and roasted carrots and celery, this crowd-pleaser is as basic as it gets. One member of our party summed it up best: “It’s excellent for what it is, but in the end, it’s just pot roast.” It didn’t wow us — in fact, it was even a little bland, despite the generous garnish of horseradish sauce. And there’s just something about limp celery that makes it a total downer, lowering the overall appeal of an entire dish. The plate inspired a shrug, though word of mouth primed us to like it.
On the bright side, several of the dinner menu’s other options were fantastic. The vegetarian Pumpkin Soup ($14) with mole, sopes, and wild mushrooms was unique and addictively savory. We enjoyed its texture contrasts — all silky puree and puffy sopes. At lunch, the soup is $9 and served with pork belly, gingerbread, and spicy marmalade.
A plate of white beans with lamb sausage ($11) is an appetizer that aspires to be an entree, and we despaired as we sopped up as much sauce as we could with the accompanying garlic bread. We sighed at life’s cruelty as the dish ended, far too early.
There is no other restaurant in the world where one can sit down with a Malbec and chat up a googly girl underneath a painting of a football field. The Modern is a cheerful neighborhood den for the bohos and working class of Nordeast, who would otherwise spend their evenings eating frozen burritos in solitude. This is what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood.
BEST BET: Try the mushroom-studded pumpkin soup — it offers a silky texture and savory mole flavor.
Contemporary Diner in Northeast Minneapolis
337 13th Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413
OWNER / CHEF: Jim Grell / Phillip Becht
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $9-11 at lunch, $14-17.75 at dinner