The South lays claim to one of America’s most coveted cuisines, but there’s more to it than just deep-fried delicacies topped with pimento cheese and hot honey sauce. Southern food is an echo from our country’s history, a true culinary melting pot bringing simple cooking traditions together such as Cajun, African, Appalachian and even Scottish. But just because the South gave us pan-fried chicken and hushpuppies, doesn’t mean that New Jersey isn’t doing it right, too.
During a recent visit to Modine, one of Asbury Park’s newest restaurants, I discovered a menu that pays tribute to traditional Southern fare while simultaneously creating something instinctively its own. Here, the food is inspired by what they call “Low Country” cooking, a cuisine associated with South Carolina’s Low Country and Georgia’s coast. But more interesting still, is that Modine has taken Low Country to a new place (and I don’t just mean its newly-renovated Mattison Ave location).
The restaurant is the brainchild of five talented partners: Brooklyn transplant husband-and-wife team Jill Meerpohl and Chris Davin, who helm the kitchen; Shanti and Steve Mignogna, owners of Talula’s in Asbury Park; and GM Andrew Rasizer who leads the bar program and front of house for Modine. Together, they bring their culinary experiences both in and out of the kitchen, pushing the identity of Southern comfort to their own unique taste.
Entering Modine gives one that classic, old-time feel. Not one teeming with creaking hinges and dingy corners, but a space that recreates how things might’ve been before the erosion of time took hold. This historic building at 601 Mattison, once a post office and bank in its heyday (and yes the massive vault is still there), is now brimming with natural light and greenery by day and glowing with charm and spotlights in the evening. Working with Brooklyn architects Space Exploration, Modine’s character has come to surface as through its marble pillars, brass accents and rich, green leather booths. Though the space holds 150 guests, nothing about Modine’s design feels crowded, quite the contrary.
The food at Modine follows similar suit: simple yet incredibly sophisticated. However, the idea of “Low Country” is where it all starts. “When you think of Southern foods, there’s so many things that pop into your head,” Meerpohl told me as I sipped on a Bourbon Crusta. “Low Country got its name from being close to the ocean. That’s where you get a lot of seafood and fish camps down south. Frogmore stew and hushpuppies come from those regions, things that grow well in those marshy areas like beans or rice—it’s more of a coastal, Southern food.”
Though she’s spent her most recent years in New York (and now Asbury), Meerpohl grew up cooking Southern. The experiences both her and Davin have had in the South is ultimately what’s inspired many of the dishes on the menu. In fact, the restaurant is even named for Meerpohl’s grandmother. Couple that with the local experience of Shanti and Steve Migonoa (and a lot of reading and researching), and you have Modine.
“Southern cooking, that’s my jam,” Meerpohl exclaimed. “When my husband and I had our honeymoon, we traveled for about three and a half months camping down the East Coast—and we got stuck in the South. We sought out fish camps and places that had those killer layer cakes everyday. [Chris] had never experienced Southern hospitality before. I grew up in South Florida, went to school in Tallahassee and spent a lot of time in Charleston and Savannah before eventually living in Brooklyn. My grandmother, who was born in Virginia, grew all her own food. She taught me a lot when she moved to Florida. She taught me a lot about what it meant to grow your own food and cook with the seasons.”
Modine’s dinner menu is divided into a handful of small sections: Snacks, Starters, Salads, Mains, Sides and, of course, Fried Chicken. Early meal highlights are truly what make this eclectic blend of Low Country cuisine a rarity. You’d be hard-pressed to find a house-made Andouille sausage comparable to the one on Davin and Meerpohl’s menu. Served with mashed potatoes, gravy and frizzled onions (and made gluten-free), the dish speaks to Modine’s integrity and their use of whole animals in-house. Davin himself is a trained butcher, and almost nothing on a whole animal goes to waste. If they receive a pig, they’re breaking it down, making dinner sausage, breakfast sausage, head cheese or hand-cutting pork chops. Overall, limiting waste is one of their core values in the kitchen.
When it comes to sincerity, however, Modine has struck the perfect chord between simplicity and sophistication. Even something as straightforward as their Devilish Eggs (Modine’s spin on deviled eggs) sets a high standard. Topped with smoked trout and pickled mustard seeds, I wasn’t surprised when Meerpohl told me she practically lived off this dish in the months leading up to their opening (and I certainly don’t blame her).
Starters might steal the show in the early goings, but mains and sides is where Modine’s culinary expertise really shines. From pan-seared sea trout with pickled hakurei turnips to BBQ rubbed shrimp with antebellum grits, the entrées make a strong, Southern statement. One only needs a single bite of the fried chicken to understand how much painstaking work goes into its creation. At Modine, the fried chicken comes in half or whole, cold smoked, brined in buttermilk, and served with a biscuit, two sides and hot honey drizzle.
Perhaps the most popular of the sides is Modine’s mac & cheese, and to call it a showstopper, might just be an understatement. Served in a tiny cast iron pan, the mac & cheese is a testament to Davin and Meerpohl’s days as owners of El Gato Nacho in Brooklyn. “We used to make really fancy nachos,” Meerpohl explained. “The cheese sauce is the sauce that Chris developed over time for that business, but here we’re using cheddar and Gruyère. The process we use keeps the mac & cheese from breaking.”
When it comes to innovations, Modine doesn’t stop at cheese. Their menu also includes vegan fried chicken, something I’ve always been averse to trying. But this vegan fried chicken happens to be made in-house, from the seitan base (or wheat) up. “We had a couple of pop-ups before we opened. The vegan pop-up sold out in less than 24 hours.” Meerpohl said. “It was then I realized we had to make something special to offer this market. I learned this whole process. We could’ve very easily bought seitan and breaded and fried it, but I wanted to put the same amount of effort as we do with our regular fried chicken. So we learned to make the seitan from scratch with well-sourced ingredients. We make the seitan. We bake it. We boil it in this aromatic broth. Then we brine it. It took a long time to develop! It takes the same amount of time as actual fried chicken, and I think it comes across in the quality. I wanted to make something that was vegan that me as myself, not being a vegan, would enjoy.”
As with everything, dessert is comfortably familiar but with Modine’s own special twist. After a full meal of Southern cuisine, one might tread lightly on the subject of sweets. However, Meerpohl’s offerings are as promising as they are easy on the stomach. All equally pleasing, the coconut cream layer cake, Big Easy chocolate chicory cake, banana cream pie and (vegan) boozy ambrosia pudding ensure even the smallest appetites have room for dessert. These can also be served with dessert wine or cocktails like the Beach Bramble, which is heading to the menu this spring.
The coffee is sourced locally at Coffee Aficionado in Morganville, NJ, a brew unique to Modine that resembles a New Orleans-style blend. The dark roast gives a chocolate flavor with hints of roasted chicory, vanilla and deep berries. A cube of raw sugar and a little milk is all that’s needed to achieve a perfect flavor profile. “We tested a bunch of different blends and they created a special blend for us,” Rasizer told me. “We wanted to add chicory. Similar to the chicory flavors you get out of a chocolate cake, we do roasted chicory on top of our coffee everytime we brew it. It’s an amazing flavor. ”
Rasizer, along with Bar Manager Paul Check (Talula’s), have created a bar program that is predetermined on the collective vision for Modine. They’re not reinventing the wheel. Instead, they’re keeping it simple, albeit while doing some pretty extraordinary things. Cocktail highlights feature the Planters Punch, which is Appleton Estate Reserve Rum with Broadbent Madeira, simple, lime and Angostura Bitters; and (my personal favorite) the Bourbon Crusta, which is made with Russell’s Reserve Bourbon, maraschino, Grand Marnier, lemon, topped with a mountain of perfectly shaped ice.
“We’re paying homage back to the traditional ways of making cocktails. Sazerac, a crusta, a sour—we’re doing it with our own twist on it,” Rasizer explained. “I’ve done 600 bottle wine lists, and it’s not what we were striving for. We want to give people really good, value-driven stuff that’s interesting. We have a big focus on natural wines and Pét-Nat. The smaller list allows us to switch up the wines as often as we like. It’s all about the education of the guests, we want them to know how to make the cocktails.”
Looking back, it made perfect sense to open Modine at 601 Mattison. From good food and a promise to educate (literally, there’s cards with instruction on how to make their cocktails), Low Country cooking is alive and well in Asbury Park. Modine began its brunch service in February and on the horizon, they’ve plans to open a back entrance to-go window for takeout. Aiming for a Memorial Day Weekend launch, a six-pack of beer and some cold fried chicken from “Mo To-Go” just might be the perfect way to kick off the summer of 2018 at the Jersey Shore.