First Taste: MOD

Ozark cuisine goes modernist in Bentonville

“You’ve just got to try it,” William McCormick tells me with a wry smile.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon at MOD (short for “Modern Ozark Dining”), one of the newest additions to the downtown Bentonville restaurant scene, and MOD’s executive chef and I are talking through his menu. The “it” in question that I’ve just got to try is a smoked red-tea-brined egg. And because I, of all people, understand that every so often a bite comes along that defies description—and because I’m no fool—I wholeheartedly agree with him.

I do indeed have to try it.

Intrigued, I follow William into the kitchen, slipping into reporter-slash-spy mode while he’s fetching that egg. Beneath a ceiling of back-lit panels, the countertops are teeming with prep for tonight’s dinner. Impossibly large carrots are stacked up like logs in a pan while vacuum-sealed bags of this and that—Are those short ribs? That’s definitely pumpkin—bob in sous-vide baths. Spools of black cords attached to various gadgets slither around stacks of dishes, plastic containers and bottles of oil and vinegar. It smells like heaven in here. (I later find out that “heaven” is a large pot of brandade bubbling away on the stove.) 

“We serve them open-faced,” explains William, snapping me out of my snooping. Built like a football player, the guy towers above me. And while he has a face that’s more Paul Newman than Gene Wilder, there’s something about the playfully mischievous look in his lucid green eyes that conjures Willy Wonka.

William sets a small bowl on the counter in front of me, and in it sits a shiny, shell-less egg. Carefully, he cuts the orb in half lengthwise, exposing a shimmery, gel-like yolk.

It takes me just one bite to understand why I needed to experience “it” for myself. Smooth and sweet with a subtle floral flavor, it’s been transformed into something that’s more candy than egg—and I’m not talking Cadbury here. I’ve never tasted anything quite like it. I devour the thing.

Smiling broadly at my obvious appreciation for his creation, William leads me back to the restaurant’s dining room to continue our chat. He steers the conversation to exactly where we were prior to the impromptu egg tasting: how he gives Chinese garlic noodles a bit of a modern twist by serving them with one of those afore-tasted brined eggs.

Brining, he explains, is a technique that’s evocative of the way he and his team at MOD approach food. In the case of that egg, I got a dialed-up version of a smooth, creamy hard-boiled egg while getting a taste of something completely new and different, thanks to that red-tea brine.

What isn’t immediately clear to me is how a technique that’s been around forever—brining—gets credit for modernizing a dish. But then William mentions that some folks call his approach “molecular gastronomy,” and something clicks.

The term molecular gastronomy was first coined in 1992 in an effort to market a conference about the science of cooking. Back then, cooking wasn’t the big deal that it is today, and the academics and scientists who typically attended meetings at the Ettore Majorana Centre in Sicily, where the meeting was being held, were used to hashing out weightier topics like, say, the origin of the universe. So conference organizers tagged the get-together “The International Workshop on Molecular and Physical Gastronomy,” hoping to add a bit of heft to what was essentially a scientific investigation into what went on in the kitchen—and had been going on for centuries. Like brining.

But “molecular gastronomy” is the term that stuck and ultimately came to characterize a restaurant trend that relied on science-driven processes and gadgetry—gadgetry that had, in many cases, heretofore been relegated to the industrial food-processing lab. Burning ice cream, frozen parm air, potato foam and coconut “soil” ensued.

Perhaps because of the more extreme and outrageous molecular-gastro examples that have made it onto the plate in the past decade or so, some chefs are now disavowing the term altogether, opting instead to describe what they’re doing in the kitchen as “experimental cooking” or “modernist cuisine.”

But William isn’t the type to get caught up in semantic drama. “Molecular gastronomy,” “modernist cuisine,” whatever you want to call it—he’s into it. And as he begins to go into detail about some of the processes he and his team deploy at MOD, things quickly go from Willy Wonka to Walter White, and I find myself jotting down terms like “stabilizers,” “emulsifiers,” “foaming agents” and “nixtamalization.” (To clarify, that last one refers to the process of turning cornmeal into grits, not blowing things up.) 

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William explains that it was working at Boston fine-dining icon L’Espalier that first got him hooked on gels, powders, brining, pressure-cooking and the like, and his culinary creativity led him to stints at restaurants in places as far-flung as Montreal and Chicago. But in 2010, the eighth-generation Northwest Arkansan decided to come home and check off a bucket-list goal: a restaurant on Fayetteville’s Dickson Street.

It was at this gastropub, Farrell’s, that he met fellow foodie and MOD owner Mario Valdovino (whose day job is corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovations at Tyson foods). In 2014, when Mario decided it was time to pull the trigger on opening a restaurant in downtown Bentonville, he turned to William to take the helm as head chef.

But both Mario and William knew MOD needed a way to stand out in downtown Bentonville, which is now home to a half-dozen chef-driven eateries. That’s where William’s creative and slightly mad-scientist cooking skills come into play. And while he’s certainly not the only chef in town playing around with molecular gastronomy, he is the one who’s featuring it most prominently.

“Because we’re relatively small with 45 seats, we can approach food a bit differently,” he explains. “We can take a little more time because of the smaller volume.”

Though William likes to play around with emulsifiers and stabilizers and nitrogen cartridges in the kitchen, his food is often rooted in nostalgia for the comfort foods he’s eaten all his life. Meat-and-potatoes, hushpuppies, an after-school PB&J and those chocolate oranges his mom would buy every Christmas season all inspired dishes on recent MOD menus.

“I like to strike a balance,” he explains. “When you do just molecular gastronomy, you lose touch with the roots of the food.”

And while the Ozarks, and especially the ingredients grown and raised here, are a major inspiration for all of his menus, William says he won’t be geographically hemmed in when it comes to deciding what makes it to the plate. To him, he explains, the “modern” in MOD isn’t just about the science-driven techniques he employs; it’s also about looking at local ingredients though a global lens.

Take, for example, his “Pop ’n’ Roe” appetizer: When his wheels were in motion trying to come up with the perfect “dippable” for the fall menu, he automatically went to tried-and-true Arkansas pork cracklins. To give those cracklins a global twist, he thought, why not add a dusting of nori seaweed and nutritional yeast? Those Asian-inspired cracklins became the perfect delivery system for a miso-tofu dip, which was made to shine with a dash of 50-year-old Italian balsamic vinegar and a dollop of tobiko.

It all sounds pretty mod to me, but is it tasty? I can’t wait to find out.

Which is why, a few nights later, I find myself sipping a martini at a table near the bar at MOD. I’m looking forward to tasting how William has melded molecular gastronomy and home-style cooking on the plate. And I’m dying to see where in the world my meal takes me.

As I sip my drink, I take in my surroundings. Tonight, it’s not just the kitchen that’s buzzing—the entire restaurant is a hive of activity. The dining room, which is packed, is very much a cross between Mad Men and 2001: A Space Odyssey: white Eames chairs, black Eames bar stools, that aforementioned illuminated ceiling and a massive—and I do mean massive—geometric chandelier overhead.

As I’m mentally ballparking how many tons that chandelier weighs, our friendly waitress, Jessie, sets down our first course, that aforementioned “dippable.” (Another way MOD is trying to set itself apart is by offering a prix-fixe menu—the plan is to have three or four different menus that rotate in each of the four seasons.) It’s divine. Somehow William manages to ensure that the miso-tofu dip has the exact consistency of French-onion dip, which contrasts perfectly with the light, airy cracklins.

The dip sets the tone, and each successive dish (the prix-fixe menu comes with three sharable appetizers, a main, side and a dessert, but in addition, we opted to get two of the three “supplementals,” a la carte small plates, that are also offered) is full of fun—but most importantly, it’s full of flavor. So much flavor that on more than one occasion I have to stop Jessie from taking away a seemingly empty plate because I’m not about to let a single crumb or drop get away.

There’s one plate in particular that forces me to throw decency out the window and use my finger to wipe up every last bit: the PB&J. This riff on the classic is a sight to behold. Atop a hearty slash of pasticcio butter is a mélange of Taleggio ravioli, “compressed apples” (compressing an apple makes it taste extremely apple-y), popped sorghum and shimmery blackberry jelly. The only thing wrong with this dish is you have to share it. (I also break the social decency contract when I’m forced to threaten my husband with the business end of my steak knife when he attempts to steal a bite of my dry-aged sirloin.)

But as tasty as that PB&J and sirloin are, the biggest showstopper of the meal is arguably the hot-coal-roasted onion ravioli, a take-your-breath-away beautiful dish that at first sight looks like what it’s called: ravioli. But turns out what’s on the plate is actually a translucent layer of Gruyere cheese encapsulating a savory dollop of onion caramel and toasted rye breadcrumbs. The combination of melty cheese, toasty breadcrumbs and a whimsical onion petal containing a shot of bacon stock take the dish far into comfort-food territory. (Word to the wise: Though it’s got all the flavors of comfort food, the menu might leave those with bigger appetites hungry for more. Pro tip: Get the bread basket.)

As I take my final bite of dinner, a delightful citrusy chocolate truffle served with a dusting of coconut powder, I notice that the couple at the table in front of ours are involved in some pretty serious PDA. It’s something I likely wouldn’t have thought much about, much less taken note of, except that when we’d first arrived, the couple at the table to our left had also been full-on making out.

Is there something in the air? Or in the food? After a moment of contemplation, I conclude that it could very well be both. After all, the folks at MOD have asked us all to go a bit out on a ledge with them, and maybe that’s making some of my fellow diners feel a bit freer than usual.

I’m all for it, I decide—love is all we need, and all that. Then I make a mental note to make a reservation at MOD for Valentine’s Day. This place just seems to have great chemistry, in more ways than one.