Tasting menus have been sprouting left and right in the city the past few months that the jaded among us are won’t to suspect people are only cashing in on a trend. If you carry that suspicion coming into Mōdan in Cubao, Quezon City, however, you’ll be rid of it as soon as you meet the unassuming guy behind the intimate 12-seater degustacion venue, and as soon as you begin to experience what he’s got in store.
His name is Jorge Mendez, a 30-year old creative soul who’s trained under and cooked alongside stellar chefs here and abroad, among them Margarita Fores, the Spanish Chele Gonzales, the Taiwanese Andre Chiang, and Japanese ramen master Kito Nakawara. He’s also worked in the kitchens of L’Incontro, the oldest known Italian restaurant in the country, and Ninyo, a favorite QC date place which specializes in fusion cuisine.
He also runs the multi-branch Ohayo ramen and maki bar, and the cloud kitchens Byrd Tubs and Eats Chow Chew. He first made sure he has this stable of, well, stable earners before he allowed himself to build a dream, which is to say Mōdan, a playground where he can just be totally inventive with food. So yeah, this venture is not at all ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ and more ‘an idea whose time has come.’ As business partner and Mendez champion Angelo Comsti says, “Jorge is now ripe and ready to show his capacity.”
Mendez’s stage is a modest space in a quiet area in Cubao; just below the condominium unit where his family resides and a few steps away from a Ministop outlet. And just like those particulars, everything else inside Mōdan is devoid of pretension or artifice—it’s a room that fits a kitchen, a table for a dozen people, and a bit of space between those two. A stack of books on a dim corner looks too inconsequential to invite suspicion it’s there to make any kind of statement.
For this very personal restaurant, Mendez chose to hone in on Japanese cuisine because it’s the closest to his heart. It’s the food his mother, who worked as a band singer in Japan, would cook for him when he was young. She loved cooking and is the reason her son dreamt of becoming a chef, and why at 7 years old he knew how to make chop suey. It’s not surprising that he begins his inaugural menu in Mōdan with a tribute to her, in the form of a tendon tempura on a stick paired with a foamy onion tea. The tempura is the very first Japanese dish his mother made for him, except that it was a kakiage with shrimp, a bit of a borderline okoy.
Each dish in Mendez’s 10-course menu is an offering of gratitude to those who came before him, and those who continue to inspire him including his mother, wife and kids—influential people in his career and perspective.
There’s the tribute to Forés, who is said to have opened many doors for Mendez. For the hardworking chef behind Lusso, Cibo and Grace Park, he made the Amaebi which literally translates to sweet shrimp (it was Forés, too, who introduced this particular shrimp to him]—but in Mendez’s hands, the fresh shrimps are layered with Tosaka, a thin film of jicama, and doused in a delectable orange-colored, delicately peppery sauce.
Then there’s the tribute to Josh Boutwood. And whatever he taught Mendez must have blown the younger chef’s mind, because the dish in his honor is a gindara, aged and very lightly seared, with a transportive miso bisque that will have one thinking of ryokans and cherry blossom trees without needing to close one’s eyes.
For a bunch of old comrades in the kitchen, Mendez creates one of the highlights of the Mōdan repertoire. Building on the tebasaki, which is basically Japanese sweet and savory chicken wings, the chef packs a surprise with a plump, beautifully roasted wing with a lumpfish caviar rice stuffing. Adding another layer of deliciousness is the shoyu-treated egg yolk beside it which becomes a rich, deeply satisfying sauce when poked.
Mendez identifies his food at Mōdan as Neo- or Progressive Japanese, which translates to building on known Japanese traditions and flavors by adding modern techniques (ICYMI, the name of the restaurant is a play on the word “modern”), a continuous pursuit to perfect a dish or to arrive at a certain taste.
Japan’s famed fine dining spot Den, for example, taught the chef how to their clay pot rice dish—already perfect in itself as per Mendez but he adds a few more tricks to make his Nabe both his own and a tribute to the restaurant where he learned it. What arrives at our table is a big bowl of gleaming soy-colored rice topped with wagyu short ribs and unagi slices. The promise of a filling rice dish with these baubles of delectable meat was enough to inspire a collective gasp ‘round our table as soon as the bowl’s lid was lifted and the smell of savory goodness filled the air. Being able to put spoonfuls of the dish in our mouths only sealed the deal for what already delighted our eyes.
Mōdan has been getting a lot of excellent feedback from the city’s gourmands since it opened. “Japanese food like I’ve never tasted before,” says influencer Leslie Cheng who is @shootfirsteatlater on Instagram. “Each bite was a surprise and delight.” No wonder the bookings just keep coming.
Mendez could have easily opened his own private dining haunt years back. He’s had training. Had a bit of experience. Had that innate talent that could only be a source of so many good things. “Instead he took his time, honed his talent, and gathered inspiration from multiple Japanese trips before finally opening Mōdan,” wrote his friend Comsti in the Inquirer. The guy knows exactly where to steer his ship and when; when to push back and when to go full throttle. When we ask about the tattoos that cover his arms, he points at one with a mushroom design. He remembers telling his staff back when he was working in a hotel, “Pag may mushroom na ‘ko sa wrist, that means aalis na ako dito. That means I have to level up.” Chef Jorge Mendez is a man with a plan.
[The 10-course menu is priced at P4500 per person. Modan is open Fridays to Sundays at 6PM. Unit 3, Level 1, Escalades East Tower, 20th Avenue, Cubao, Quezon City. For reservations, text or call +639164861443]