The Italian word moda implies "fashion." Moda is now also a restaurant in Geist. Owners Tim and Melissa Shelburn, who operate two chic couture boutiques in the area, are trying to translate their own good sense of style in clothing to an upscale restaurant concept they hope will turn as many heads as a runway model.
The pan-sautéed grouper with white raisin risotto ($19)
So, what's hot on the culinary circuit? What's this season's new black? Since they opened their restaurant in the old Bella Vita location in May, the Shelburns have worked hard to attire their joint with some trendy fixtures and funky accessories. The most notable feature is a collection of patchwork bronze lamps and illuminated wall sculptures, which dominate the décor in the main dining room, along with a maze of exposed industrial piping and ductwork.
Earthy drip paintings and a wall-sized tile water fountain in a secluded back dining room make Moda an artful respite in a strip-mall setting. Unfortunately, blinds on the main windows were drawn, exposing the less than picturesque view of the parking lot. Dining late, we also found ourselves fighting over the loud music booming from what the woman on the phone called the "band side." By 9, the tables were deserted, but the bar was clogged with Northside hipsters. We could barely make our orders heard over the din.
If the menu is an indication, such all-too-common appetizers as crab cakes, fried calamari and spinach-artichoke dip are still in vogue. However, our eyes drifted down the page to a short list of flatbread pizzas, and we quickly substituted one for our starter. The chicken rosemary pizza ($8) provided one of the highlights of the meal: a chewy, rich, smartly-dressed pizza with a crusty edge and a flavorful combination of slightly sweet roasted apples and tangy goat cheese. With a little creativity in ordering, our fashion show was starting out well.
Salads and soups, however, needed some more time at the tailor. The Caesar ($5), the little black dress of salads, was heavily accessorized with parmesan, and the dressing lacked bite. The Moda wedge salad ($4) offered beautiful butter lettuce and wore a tangy, if mild, gorgonzola dressing. But every bite brought more water out from between the lettuce leaves, dissipating the flavors. A tomato bisque ($5) mentioned about as many ingredients as any other dish on the menu, but all of these components just weighed the soup down rather than standing out.
The Shelburns, along with hand-picked chefs Frank Edmonds and Anthony Blackburn, have turned to Italy, the epicenter of food and fashion, for their inspiration. But there's a lot of play in the menu. Barbecued Cornish hen with grilled corn seems more an American original than something you'd order in Rome. A number of the dishes on the menu were marked with a red M, which seemed to indicate they were specialties of the house.
Among pastas, the spaghetti Bolognese ($17) promised both a bowl of comfort and a great test of the basic skills of Edmonds and his crew. Oddly described as "tossed with your choice of pasta," I stuck with the suggested starch. Our helpful, but deadpan waiter agreed. While the sauce had nice bits of tender veal and recognizable vegetables, it was so thin and watery it pooled at the bottom of the bowl, draining off the pasta. No amount of tossing could bring the two elements together.
Another suggested specialty was also one of the menu's most creative designs. The pan-sautéed grouper with white raisin risotto ($19) was a clever variation on some familiar components. The fish remained flavorful and moist inside a light breading, but the risotto was both overcooked and tepid. A playful squiggle of a sweet reduction sauce seemed a bit superfluous, though a few alterations might have made this a stunning entrée.
Despite some near misses, evidence of Edmonds' prowess, both in design and execution, did shine through. The tenderloin marsala ($18) was an expertly prepared dish any restaurant would be proud to serve. Perfectly tender medallions of pork came with a complex sauce not overly sweet from the marsala. A shower of potato threads adorned but didn't obliterate the top of the pork, and a well of spinach spiked with visible slices of garlic made for a piquant accompaniment.
Desserts, an opportunity for a flashy finale, were actually a bit more homey - though this didn't diminish their flavor. A fudgy chocolate truffle torte ($6) didn't overwhelm with chocolate flavor, and the house-made vanilla ice cream was as silky as any you might have churned yourself over the summer.
Moda might not be the equivalent of Prada's latest show in Milan. But Mr. Blackwell wouldn't look down his nose. A few stellar moments sparkled - which is really the case with any designer's collection. The great thing about fashion is that there's always something new next season.