Denise Shavandy is an accomplished name in local culinary circles, from her stints at Pegasus and Spice International Cafe in Fort Worth, to her work in Southlake and Dallas at Central Market and Eatzi’s.
But taking the helm at Café Modern, after chef Dena Peterson’s immensely successful 12-year-run, is no small thing. After spending the summer getting acclimated to the kitchen and forging relationships with new and old vendors, Shavandy debuted her first seasonal menu in October — and while it’s not so radically different from her predecessor’s in scope, it leaves something to be desired in execution.
Shavandy derives inspiration from Asian and Mediterranean flavors, which are in full effect on the lunch menu, from Chinese mushroom soup ($5.50, cup/$7.50, bowl) and a seared tuna soba noodle salad ($16.50) to the roasted walnut and red pepper dip known as muhammara, served with lavosh crackers ($11.25) and zaatar spiced panisses ($8.75).
The latter seemed an intriguing appetizer when a group of us descended upon the cafe’s elegant dining room for a late lunch on a recent Friday. The zaatar spice, which was ground down to its essence, bathed the stack of thick-cut chickpea “fries.” But without much of a crust — and the insides a mash of beans — the pieces lacked texture, and really, a dynamic taste.
I tried to help the situation with a dip into the saffron-infused aioli, but the prevailing ingredient seemed to be garlic, and it would have been greatly aided with at least a pinch or two of salt.
The other accompanying sauce, a harissa ketchup favored the former ingredient more than the latter, yielding little sweetness, and more than a couple of comparisons to chipotle barbecue sauce.
The duck nachos ($11.25) were a slightly better bet. The three crispy corn disks were spread with a sweet-potato mash and then topped with Dallas Mozzarella Co. caciotta cheese, shredded duck, pickled diced apples and a dusting of micro greens.
The cheese had a nice flavor but was completely out of place juxtaposed with the sweet potato. I liked the pickled apple’s acid, but the tortilla was notably soggy and could barely stand up to the hefty ingredients.
Much of the rest of the menu doesn’t diverge that dramatically from the globally minded salads and entrees of Peterson’s reign. There’s a Modern Texas Caesar salad ($14.95) with pepita seeds, avocado and smoked jalapeño dressing, and the tuna noodle salad was an attractive tangle of soba noodles with a smallish serving of perfectly seared tuna slices. But, again, attention to detail was lacking: the noodles were ice-cold.
Our mixed-results meal continued with a stellar vegetable and tofu green curry ($14.50), a sensational mix of vegetables atop purple rice that was extraordinarily spicy. A dusting of what looked to be shredded fried carrots and beets added crunch and rounded out the well-conceived dish.
And the hot pastrami sandwich ($14.75) was a winner, with its interesting melding of apple-celery slaw, tender meat and melted Gouda encased in marble rye.
A return visit prompted more highs and lows. The tandoori chicken salad sandwich ($14.75) consisted of finely diced chicken, according to the menu, with a yogurt dressing and cilantro-mint chutney served on a toasted flatbread. But the chutney was spread so miserly on the bread that it seemed a mere afterthought, and the result was a startlingly dry sandwich.
I started to think there might be a disconnect between Shavandy and her serving staff, or perhaps a disconnect between Shavandy’s discerning vision and the reality of some of the food. At both meals, many dishes ran the risk of being misidentified.
A chef’s side of “quinoa with lime” was really tabbouleh with quinoa substituted for bulgur wheat — and no lime was in sight. Another chef’s side at the previous visit was potato salad — a nice bowl of potato chunks and green beans, but the advertised blue cheese in the vinaigrette was missing. As a result, I am issuing the following sides mandate: Until further notice, substitute the Kennebec fries ($2).
We gravitated to the fine, small selection of desserts and found comfort in the TX Whiskey flan ($8), served with a crispy apple garnish and pecan praline bits. The overwhelmingly sweet praline nicely offset the flan’s milder notes, and atop the whiskey sauce, it was a perfectly modulated, nuanced finish to the meal.
It can’t be easy for Shavandy to follow in the Dansko-ed footsteps of a long-tenured, beloved chef. The Modern is a spectacular environment to have a drink, or take a meal, and that should be enough — but the bar has been set so high it’s understandable one would need a few attempts to even think about clearing it.