The Mills 50 District has always been one of the city’s more vibrant dining areas, even before it was named Mills 50. Before that it was unofficially called Little Saigon because of the many Vietnamese-owned restaurants and businesses.
There have, at times, been some exceptional food to be found in this area, named for the cross section of Mills Avenue and U.S. Highway 50. But for the most part, the dining experiences have historically been decidedly downscale – not drab but seldom anything above casual.
That has begun to change. Tori Tori brought a more urban chic feel to the neighborhood when it opened a few years ago. And now The Moderne has moved in with a fresh, new stylishness of its own.
The Moderne occupies a space that most recently was a mattress store. Like Tori Tori it is equal parts bar and restaurant, though there might be a slight tip of the scale to the cocktail side.
It has an inventive list of cocktails, too many with names that do nothing to describe them. But then negroni and sidecar aren’t very descriptive, either, come to think of it. I chose the one called Mother’s Mercy, which had tequila and mezcal with a bit of ginger, orgeat and coconut water, garnished with a hefty bit of mint. It was refreshing, sort of like a less salty margarita, but what it had to do with mercy, a mother’s or anyone else's, escapes me.
Although the Moderne claims to feature food from Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean, the menu is predominantly Asian. The only Mediterranean influence I spotted was rigatoni, and that was in a dish called Korean Vodka Pasta.
Which I ordered. The large tubes were coated with a sauce that featured bits of chorizo seasoned with chili paste. It was meant to be spicy but really wasn’t too. It was topped with breadcrumbs, parmesan and chives. I liked it but I’d probably choose something else next time unless I felt the need to have something filling, which the rigatoni was.
This is a good place to mention that the foods are mainly tapas sized and served in the tapas tradition of coming out of the kitchen whenever the dish is ready. If you order your starters and main dishes at one time you could very well get your main dishes before your starters.
My dinner companion ordered the soft shell crab, which was coated in feathery breading and deftly deep fried to a perfect (and ungreasy) crispness. It had a wonderful salt and peppery taste.
My yellowtail maki handroll was interesting in that it wasn’t rolled. Rather, it was served as a sort of canapé, a square of roasted nori on the bottom topped with vinegared rice with the fish on top. Unusual but enjoyable.
We also had the beef skewer from the list of kushiyaki. The tender hunks of beef were marinated and cooked over charcoal on a skewer that also held onions and bell peppers. Prettily presented with black and white sesame seeds and scattered micro greens.
The Moderne apparently takes its name from the art moderne design movement. There are characteristic traces of art deco, mainly in the light fixtures and furniture and use of mirrors, but other touches like red bamboo wall paper give a nod to the restaurant’s culinary theme. The corner space allows for plenty of light and a not-so-appealing view of Colonial Drive. My favorite bit of the design is the geographic tile that surrounds the bar. It fools the eye into thinking the stools are a step up from the floor.
A comparison to Tori Tori is an apt one. Both interiors were the work of GDPdesignbuild, which also has its office in Mills 50. GDPdesignbuild’s architects, George Fong and Justin Fong, also did the nearby Mamak restaurant, another stylish interior. Kudos to them for sprucing up the area.
The Moderne is wildly popular and difficult to get into. On a first attempt to visit, my guests and I were told that there was a multi-hour wait. Reservations are accepted but you can book only a week in advance; slots go quickly. I was finally able to get one but for 5:30 p.m. I felt like a senior going for an early bird special. However, as the place quickly filled up, my companion and I noticed that our fellow diners – and drinkers – were quite young. If there were any people over 30 they had only recently celebrated that birthday. You should also know that reserved tables have a two-hour limit, but with the speed at which food comes out of the kitchen you’d be hard pressed to stretch your stay that long.
Given that strict rule, Moderne’s popularity and the youthfulness of the staff, I was expecting to be met with the sort of arrogance that usually comes with early success. (I’m thinking of a certain Audubon Park ramen restaurant.) But the staff couldn’t have been more friendly. Cheerful even. They added to the overall enjoyment.
The Moderne is at 1241 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando (map). It is open for dinner daily. It does not have a published phone number.