Just in time for gusty Autumn winds whipping in cooler nights, MOD Restaurant & Social opens, offering a warm welcome. The intimate space suffused in clean whites, grounding shades of grey and hints of blush, is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows, inviting light to dance throughout. Whether from the bright Arkansas sun fading in the evening sky, or the sweeping headlights of passersby on the increasingly busy downtown streets at night, the restaurant already has its own personality and that sparkle is just one of her amazing qualities.
With the kitchen set center-stage, Executive Chef William McCormick enjoys a cook’s version of the catbird seat. 86-ing the wall between he and the guests allows for his more direct involvement, and diners get to enjoy the show. From the cheerful (and slightly mischievous) smile he offers the moment you walk in the door, to the thoughtful timing of each course, and the ability to give his team in-the-moment input; the restaurant is his orchestra, and he conducts brilliantly.
“So Mario and I have been talking about this place since November of 2014. We spent time eating at Michelin-starred establishments to see what the world was offering, and each time we’d go someplace new we asked for their greatest hits. And we were always sharing. Sharing a bottle of wine, sharing tasting menus, sharing a great cocktail we’d heard about. This whole concept was born from that. We wanted a place where sharing was a focus; between us and our guests and among them as well. And where we only offered our absolute greatest hits.”
I watch as the staff readies the restaurant for service. Chef/owner Mario Valdovino, a research chef, author and innovator by trades, is the absolute don of details. Each table, chair, every surface is checked over and his employees listen intently to all directives. His management team, many with deep Arkansas roots and all with extensive backgrounds in hospitality and the restaurant craft, work together as a well-oiled machine. It’s hard to comprehend, they’ve only been open for a few days, and clear their guests are in very capable hands.
In a time when most people have too many responsibilities and a constant barrage of decisions to consider, the professionals at MOD invite you in to enjoy the art of “omakase” or Chef’s Choice. From their website, “Trust is a key ingredient at MOD Restaurant & Social. We trust our guests to be open minded, adventurous, and inquisitive. In return, they can be confident our MOD kitchen team will provide a curated culinary experience that draws on local producers, seasonal ingredients, and a deep passion for mixing modern cooking techniques with Ozark cuisine.”
Trust. I took that along on my first visit dining at MOD and with my heart open and my stomach growling. The “Pop N’ Roe” came out swiftly, providing a playful chips n’ dip salutation. Nooch-infused nori seasoning dusted the surfaces of bubbly pork cracklins. The dip, a peachy-hued miso-tofu topped with neon wasabi tobiko comes alongside. I notice a little piece of paper on the plate with a bicycle printed on it, as if to say, “hey, let’s go for a little ride…” An invitation I’ve already accepted as I sip on the Kemo Sabe cocktail between satisfying bites. Filling a high-ball glass to the brim, the meld of coconut cream, sake and gunpowder green tea is rich without being heavy; the lime, maraschino & chartreuse provide complexity and notes of fruit, citrus & herb.
I excuse myself from the table between courses for a quick chat with a friend that happens in to look at the menu. Upon my return, I notice my napkin re-folded and my messy cracklin’ crumbs gone—love that. There’s a little magic in those details. When the next two plates arrive, I barely let the plate rest on the table before diving in. Later Chef McCormick tells me about them, “The Avocado Panzanella is all about texture and culture.” He describes each component. The dish includes smoky romesco sauce, grilled avocado and haloumi, scorched broccoli dressed in an umami-rich sauce. “Plated this way there are several combinations of bites you can try as you eat through it. All those different cultures represented on one plate, and the flavors and textures all come together so beautifully.”
I couldn’t agree more.
The accompanying starter of Hot Coal Roasted Onion Ravioli is visually stunning. I am told the “pasta” is actually gruyere cheese. Melted just a touch to seal over top, blanketing the sous bois filling made from onions roasted directly on hot coals for hours. “The inspiration here was French Onion Soup. Our version is highlighting the best parts of eating that soup. The melty cheese, the rich caramelized onions, the broth-soaked bread– who doesn’t love all that? We add a touch of bacon broth inside the onion cups to take it to that next level.” His take is a feast of delights.
From the perfectly compiled cheese plate, to the main Dry-Aged Sirloin with tiny vegetables, to the Supplementals, and the Buttermilk Ice Cream Sandwiches on ginger cookies with fennel sugar, everything was executed perfectly. The presentations, as alluring and pretty as they are precise, carry McCormick’s style with great clarity. His intent, to honor every ingredient, was easily understood without a word.
By eliminating choice, you don’t give up a thing at MOD. Instead, you experience their absolute best. The lineup of dishes each week will be prepared from concept to execution with the ultimate experience in mind, but without even a hint of pretension. Chef McCormick explains, “Despite the fact that we do utilize advanced cooking techniques, this is modern Ozark dining for every person’s palate. At the end of the day, we are serving you approachable ingredients and presenting them beautifully. We may get a bit adventurous, and our hope is that you do come away having had a thought-provoking, delicious experience. But the bottom line is: we simply want to share what we love with you.”
Just let go, and let MOD.