Cafe Reviews

Modern Steak Is Delicious -- If You Don’t Mind the Wait

I was skeptical.

By now, don't we all have steakhouse fatigue? After three celebrity chefs opened upscale temples to premium beef over the past two years, the news that yet another high-end steakhouse was in the works invited collective head scratching. The fact that Modern Steak is located at a mall — in Scottsdale Fashion Square's recently built wing anchored by luxury department store Barneys New York — seemed ripe for some kind of punchline.

And as the ultimate kicker, it's a Sam Fox restaurant. Known for his roster of ultra-stylish eateries that generate buzz and often become the see-and-be-seen hotspot du jour, including True Food, Olive & Ivy, and the just-opened Culinary Dropout, the restaurateur and his ventures inspire both devotion and derision, but rarely indifference. The times I've been critical of his restaurants, it was out of wishing the food had been as obsessively perfected as the environment.

So I went into Modern Steak feeling impervious to the fashionable, high-energy crowd and gorgeous décor, as I'd frankly expect nothing less from Fox Restaurant Concepts. My mission was to look beyond the big-budget hype and figure out whether I could actually get a decent meal here along with the predictable smorgasbord of eye candy.

The answer is an enthusiastic yes, with one specific caveat. Modern Steak's front-of-the-house team really needs to get its act together.

Waiting an hour for a table after showing up on time for a dinner reservation is outrageous — especially when the lounge area has no free seats, and the bar is mobbed three people deep. It becomes flat-out condescending when sweet-faced hostesses in pretty floral dresses promise, "Oh, it'll only be 10 or 15 minutes," and then robotically repeat the same spiel every time you check back in.

This restaurant was marketed as a novel, female-friendly take on a steakhouse, but there's no better way to bring out the bitch in any lady than to make her teeter on her foxy stilettos as her blood sugar plummets and her stomach growls as loudly as the music blasting from the sound system. Or maybe that's just me.

Once seated, with some fragrant, warm focaccia to nibble on and a cold martini in hand, my mood steadily improved, especially as our affable, hard-working waiter and an army of lavender-shirted staffers doted on us. From there, the pace of dinner went smoothly. (I should note that lunch at Modern Steak was a breeze, thankfully.)

So what's "modern" about Modern Steak?

Well, it's hardly about steak at all. There are twice as many entrees and entree-size salads as there are actual slabs of beef on the menu, and the inspirations go well beyond stuffy American variations on meat and potatoes.

How about hamachi crudo with avocado, pink grapefruit, and mint, or warm asparagus pizza with crispy prosciutto and an organic fried egg? The obligatory seafood tower, and side dishes served à la carte, were the only things on the menu (besides eight different prime and all-natural steaks, of course) that gave nods to tradition.

Nor was the atmosphere here remotely close to a steakhouse cliché. Instead of a rich color palette, dark leather booths, and that generally dim, clubby feel that seems to attract cigar-smoking men, Hayes Inc. design studio created something posh and airy, with regal velvets and floral patterns in shades of citrine, aquamarine, and amethyst. A deco-inspired mirrored ceiling made the lounge feel like a jewel box, while an elaborate white lattice ceiling and bright green topiaries gave the dining room a Palm Springs panache.

And the patio, cleverly shaded with a leafy cutout canopy, will be the place for outdoor dining as soon as weather permits. What's even more impressive is how it makes you forget there's a parking lot just beyond it.

I'll cut to the chase and rave about my prime 14-ounce New York strip steak — a very juicy, rich piece of meat that was perfectly seasoned. Its flavorful charred crust gave way to a rosy, medium-rare middle. A small blob of caramelized onion jam made a lip-smacking condiment.

More beefy gratification came in the form of a foot-long Kobe beef hot dog, served with tiny jars of mustard, warm cheese sauce, diced tomato, onions, and pickle relish. Like everything else here, it's unconventional for a steakhouse, but otherwise right on trend (other local spots doing great gourmet dogs right now include The Roosevelt, Joe's Farm Grill, and The Main Ingredient). A platter of velvety beef carpaccio was also tasty, with skinny Parmesan crostini and a tangy salad of shaved asparagus.

My dining companions and I had to stop ourselves from compulsively eating every last batter-dipped, crispy fried shrimp, which went down a little too easily with spicy-sweet chili aioli. We didn't feel as guilty for going overboard, though, when our order of Parmesan truffle fries showed up and didn't wow us with truffle flavor. They were okay, but not worth wasting precious stomach space.

In contrast, I loved the distinct (but not overpowering) white truffle flavor of the warm Maine lobster salad, which I'd order again in a heartbeat. Tender chunks of meat were tossed with frisée, haricots verts, sweet corn, mushrooms, shaved asparagus, chives, roasted fingerlings, and a delicate vinaigrette. The mix of bright vegetable flavors balanced the earthy truffle component. Likewise, a salad of arugula, balsamic onions, and sour apple contained a good amount of creamy Gorgonzola and candied walnuts to tone down the acidity.

I'm not sure which was the bigger highlight of a roasted chicken dish — golden, crispy skin or really moist meat. Either way, it was appealing, with light, lemony jus and a pile of roasted onions, fingerling potatoes, beets, and tiny carrots. Better yet was the Chilean sea bass, its miso-glazed, fork-tender flesh steeped in aromatic dashi with black sesame seeds, mushrooms, and fresh cilantro.

What a relief that side dishes weren't obscenely huge, like at most steakhouses. Roasted Brussels sprouts with Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon needed more time in the oven to bring out some sweetness, but roasted mushrooms with caramelized shallots were a hit, and sweet potato purée topped with burnt marshmallow was truly ethereal, whipped to a luxurious consistency.

Coffee didn't arrive in a timely way — we finished our desserts and had to cancel the drink order. Bummer.

But at least the deliciously playful sweets left us with smiles on our faces. Doughnuts, stuffed with apple pie filling and drizzled with cinnamon anglaise, were bites of pure comfort, while a platter of just-frosted mini-cupcakes (red velvet, banana, chocolate, and carrot) inspired giddy squeals of delight.

I doubt that's something you'd hear at a traditional steakhouse.