John Melfi is, foremost, a chef, but he’s also an artist, plating each dish with such care and creativity that diners might be forgiven for admiring his visual handiwork before enjoying his culinary talents. After an impressive resume which includes stops at the Blue Duck Tavern as chef de cuisine, executive chef at Fabio Trabocchi’s Fiola Mare, and executive chef at Ashok Bajaj’s Oval Room, Melfi is now executive chef at Modena, occupying a redecorated space that once housed Bibiana.
Bajaj’s timing and strategy could not be more perfect. Bibiana, once named a best new restaurant by Esquire Magazine, still had a loyal following. But Bajaj, one of D.C.’s most successful and respected restauranteurs, is always ahead of the curve, changing things up before they can feel stale or outdated. Bibiana regulars will notice the new color scheme which tends towards cooler blues and grays, the more comfortable seating, a redesigned bar, new artwork, greenery, and new lighting. Rather than just redoing the interior of the restaurant, Bajal opted to create an exciting new dining experience. Naming the restaurant after Italy’s food capital – Modena (rumor has it, one of Bajaj’s favorite places to dine in the world) – sets the bar high. With Melfi at the helm, however, that challenge is easily met.
Small plates are everywhere these days, yet rarely has this concept been executed better than at Modena. Guests may begin their meal with selections from an antipasti cart that is artfully displayed at the entrance of the main dining room. We were tempted to try all seven antipasti for $20, or five for $18, but decided to pace ourselves. For $15, we selected three: artichoke scafata with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and basil; shaved prosciutto with balsamic, pane fitto, olio verde; and ricotta cheese tart, with spinach, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese. The dishes were all delicious, but the standout was the ricotta cheese tart, creamy and savory, with the finely grated parmesan on top adding a feathery touch.
We didn’t want to miss a chance to sample one of Melfi’s pastas, so we split an order of potato gnocchi with shaved summer truffle, water buffalo butter, and pecorino di fossa. The pasta was soft and delicate, swimming in the rich truffle and butter sauce. Heaven.
For my main course I chose a roasted salmon dish that truly was a work of art. The perfectly cooked fish was surrounded with a colorful, edible, garden of delight with a selection of greens, beets, and vegetables. But the combination was not just for appearance. The textures and flavors combined for perhaps the best salmon dish I have ever enjoyed.
My husband opted for the venison, a hearty and satisfying dish for the colder D.C. weather. The meat was tender and the accompanying vegetables added color and crunch. (Serving venison, a dish not identified with Modena, signals that Melfi’s menu will not be constricted by geographical boundaries.)
For dessert we enjoyed a version of chocolate mousse, a soft square housing a silky chocolate sauce and topped with nuts.
We chose to drink wines by the glass and found Modena’s list offered excellent choices. Besides glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, we also sampled a Vermentino, a Rosso di Montalcino, and a cabernet. Each went well with the course we were enjoying.
There’s so much more to explore at Modena. There are lunch specials for $20 or $25, whether at the bar or in the dining room. Besides the antipasti, there are other ways to begin a meal, such as charcuterie and cheese, or first courses that include crispy fried octopus. Another possibility is to enjoy a glass of wine with a pizza.
In other words, we’ll be back soon.
Top photo credit: Greg Powers from Heather Freeman PR
1100 New York Avenue NW