I get a little excited around birthdays.
You all know this about me, right? I tend to go a little crazy, a little overboard, and am genuinely happy to celebrate with family or friends. Family birthdays are particularly fun because usually, they not only involve an evening with my family, but truly amazing food!
It seems like just yesterday that we were sitting at a local restaurant, watching 3-year-old Leigh create cream and sugar towers, wondering what was going through her mind. Then later, buying 7 pounds of marzipan from a neighborhood bakery so that Leigh, the ambitious 11-year-old, could create a wedding cake. This, honestly, seems like yesterday:
Leigh stood by my side at my bat mitzvah,
Was maid of honor at my wedding,
And has been an amazing friend, confidante, and support system
Not to mention, that little hobby of building cream and sugar towers, and making wedding cakes in her spare time, has turned her into one of the most amazingly talented pastry chefs I've ever seen. And trust me, I know my desserts.
For her birthday this year, we decided to visit her friend's new restaurant up in Highland Park, Illinois. Moderno is an Italian restaurant featuring dishes with five ingredients or less, many from local farms and businesses, and saying that the food is delicious is a complete and gross understatement.
Adam and I arrived a little early, so we sat at the bar while we waited for everyone else to arrive. A Marasca Mule needed to be consumed… Tito's vodka, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, ginger beer, lime, and mint:
Not long after my drink arrived, the rest of our party did as well, so we settled in at a big table in the back of the restaurant. We had a great view of the decor, both modern and vintage at the same time
Our table had a rosy glow from a neon sign on the far wall of the restaurant. It's a replica of an art piece from a winery in Italy which has art from different artists in each of its caves.
The birthday girl:
We ordered a few things for the table, but first we enjoyed these puffy and cheesy dough bites, kept warm in an insulated stainless steel container.
Soon, the food began arriving… and I don't think it stopped for more than a few minutes all evening.
First, a gin-cured bacon, scallion, and fresh anchovy pizza:
I don't like anchovies usually, but these were salty with only a hint of fishiness. Next came the salads: beet and mascarpone cheese, watermelon and tomato with feta and duck fat crackers
The next thing that arrived was the very first thing Leigh had raved about at Moderno: fresh pickled sardines with fennel and preserved lemons. I could've had three of these for dinner and been completely satisfied. Unfortunately, these are seasonal and not going to be on the menu for much longer…
Then, a surprise antipasti plate arrived, with various salumi, pickled vegetables, toast, and wine-soaked hard goat cheese I've dreamed about.
Next was the pasta course. Each pasta is handmade, and the sauces were simple and remarkable. First, the carbonara, or as Leigh says "the bacon, egg, and cheese of the pasta world."
Corzetti: Coin-shaped thin pasta with sheep's milk ricotta, pesto, and crispy capers. Leigh explained that corzetti are made with a stamp that only a handful of people in the world know how to do. They're simply lovely, the pesto was perfectly balanced, and the crispy capers added a delicious saltiness.
Strangozzi, which literally means "strangled". The story goes that monks would eat this pasta so quickly that they would strangle themselves, but Chef Phil thinks its because of the motion needed to create the shape. (It's in the background of this picture with a spicy tomato-based sauce)
Cacio e pepe: Something I've made before, and it's even more delicious when someone else makes it on homemade pasta. (Foreground)
Agnolotti: chard and ricotta-filled pastas with browned butter… there are really no words. It's a flavor combination I'll be attempting, but I don't think it could be done justice.
THEN came our entrees. My eyes were bigger than my stomach, but we still managed to taste just about everything. I chose confit pork with grenache vinegar and spices. There was a sweet undertone to the meat, and tender is an understatement. It fell apart upon touch, and was rich and satisfying.
My mom ordered the grilled New York strip:
And David ordered the grilled leg of lamb
Eo had the farfalle with smoked trout
And Adam had a dinner portion of the pasta carbonara. Leigh ordered the fish special of the day: a roast sable fish (black cod) with a salad of shaved carrots, radishes, and fresh corn.
The star of the evening though, oddly enough, was a side dish. We ordered some "creamy polenta" just to try. The dish was beautiful, and my first bite was eyes-closing, uncontrollable "mmm" good. I believe my words were "why doesn't my polenta taste like this when I make it?!"
Our theory is that the polenta itself is actually a way to serve melted cheese and butter in a spoonable suspension. I would've eaten however much was put in front of me. Luckily, we had to share.
Leigh opened her gifts, and desserts arrived…simple and classic Italian flavors like cannoli, berry crostada, lemon sorbet, peach sorbet… I was too busy tasting to photograph.
It was a lovely evening, and a perfect way to celebrate Leigh's birthday.
Chef Phil Rubino (conveniently Leigh's friend) has such a way with simple and classic Italian flavors; Moderno is a restaurant I'll be visiting again and again.
And to Leigh: Happy birthday (again!) my dear little sister… I love you always!
1850 Second St.
Highland Park, IL 60035