AT MODUS ONE RECENT SATURDAY, a guest sipped his “Dirty Girl” vodka martini (apparently named by an over-the-line fan; this $8.50 drink is flavored with blue cheese–stuffed olives and olive juice) and said, “This is a great place—it’s very now, very happening. When is Tom Cruise going to show up?”
Modus is waaay cooler than Cruise. A menu that opens with picture-perfect plates like grilled asparagus in strawberry vinaigrette ($8) and delicate Belgian herb soup ($6) suavely underscores the contemporary music that pulses in the oh-so-hot bar and lively dining room. Dramatic hanging lamps illuminate black ceilings and gray walls—there are occasional splashes of vivid red—to create a moody twilight for guests who favor black attire. Those who dress for Modus might add a few rubies as accents, or perhaps a shirt with a red-lined collar.
At first, it seems a pretty silly name for a restaurant, but there’s a method to this Modus. The new-style supper club at Fourth and Ivy in Bankers Hill originally was conceived as Modus Operandi, which sounds like the routine a spy develops when operating behind enemy lines. Not so, says co-proprietor Scotty Johnson, explaining the philosophy behind this very cozy, very 21st-century eatery.
“‘Modus’ means ‘method,’ and there’s a method to every cocktail and every dish we serve,” he says. “The idea is all about patience, since everything is done to the best of our ability. Great things take a little more time, but they’re worth it.”
Along with the recently opened Vagabond in South Park, Modus represents the razor-sharp point of a hot new trend. (Location, location: In 1989, Vagabond co-proprietor Philippe Beltran opened The French Side of the West in the same spot that now houses Modus.) The symmetry is noteworthy: Both serve close-in, upscaling neighborhoods that maintain a stylistic distance from the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy and Hillcrest. Both emphasize top-quality food and drink in high-energy but human-scale environments, and they’re very local—neither seeks the conventioneer trade. Dine late at Modus, which serves a bar menu from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. Be French with gratinéed onion soup ($7), or take a ritzy return to childhood with short-rib “sliders” of sloppy joe–style beef on crusty rolls ($12).
“We’re inspired by the gastro-pub movement that’s popping off in London right now,” says Johnson. “To me, that means a neighborhood hangout that offers organic, modern European cuisine and incredible drinks.” He has a novel take on the trade: “There’s something very magical about being in all this chaos —a restaurant is a very chaotic place, in which every guest is living in his own moment.”
The 30-year-old Johnson formerly managed Region and has three partners: his wife, Ariana Johnson, who bartends; bookkeeper-server Kayo Tsunenari and her brand-new husband (the pair wed April 30) and chef Nathan Coulon. Heir to one of the best names in culinary San Diego, Coulon grew up in the biz: Grandparents Arlene and Don Coulon operated the well-loved Belgian Lion, and his mom is Michele Coulon of Michele Coulon Dessertier in La Jolla (she caters the Modus dessert list).
MODUS OPENED in mid-April and caught on fast. “I guess this is a natural progression for me, having my own place,” says Nathan Coulon. “I don’t know anything else. Our concept is a neighborhood eatery that serves the highest- quality cuisine.” Trust him on this one—a midafternoon drop-by caught the chef reducing three bottles of 2002 Husch Cabernet Sauvignon with homemade brown stock to create that day’s sauce for the roast lamb loin, a starring entree. “You have to have good wine to have good sauce,” he says.
It was good sauce. The lamb (at $32, the menu’s top extravagance) was crusted with chopped hazelnuts and herbs and roasted to that juicy succulence only the close attention of an experienced professional can achieve. Served with a perfect, Sunday-supper medley of peas and carrots from Chino’s, this was a plate you could relate to—elegant, satisfying and innocent of all the fusion-confusion that currently mucks up the fare at so many eateries.
San Diego loves “shrimp scampi,” but too often the affection is returned with rubbery nuggets in oily sauce. Not here, where Coulon’s shrimp in garlic butter ($10) presents white, wild-caught beauties from Mexico in a creamy sauce fragrant with garlic and minced herbs. Cast good manners aside and soak up the remaining sauce with bites of hot, crisp baguette.
The Belgian endive salad ($7) is presented Belgian-style, the individual leaves used as tender, bitter conveyances for savory- sweet cargoes of pecans, kiwi quarters, diced apple and blue cheese. This leads nicely to baquetta sea bass in an artichoke beurre blanc sauce with green garlic and fingerling potatoes ($26), and a classic, melt-in-the-mouth duck confit that encases succulent meat in crackling crisp skin ($23). It’s a winning menu, with an updated boeuf Bourguignon of slowly braised short ribs with carrots, sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions ($26) and cassoulet de Castelnaudary ($24), a long-cooked casserole of white beans with lamb, pork, sausages and duck—it’s to baked beans what foie gras is to chopped liver.
The sweets ($9 each) extend to a really lovely Belgian waffle “ice cream sandwich” with bittersweet chocolate sauce, and the Torte Lion Belge, a rich extravagance (chocolate cake, meringue, mousse and cream) that made a happy guest exclaim, “Oh, yeah, you could walk to the moon and back on this!”
Modus serves dinner nightly starting at 6 p.m. at 2202 Fourth Avenue. Reservations are advised; call 619-236-8516.