Modern Times/Politics and Prose

Bagels, Deli, Coffeehouse
$$$$ ($14 and under)
Modern Times/Politics and Prose photo
Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

You might not immediately notice the difference when you walk into Modern Times, the newly named cafe in the basement of Politics & Prose bookstore in Northwest Washington, but changes have been afoot since three ambitious owners took over March 1.

The first thing to receive a major overhaul was the menu, which now features only one sandwich offered by the former regime. "There are a couple that we worked together and came up with as original recipes," says co-owner Adam Hasler, 23. The turkey and Swiss on seven-grain bread with cranberry and beet dressing and watercress and the English Roast "are our favorites."

The English Roast ($7), a harmonious arrangement of marinated roast beef, hand-cut cheddar cheese, arugula, mango chutney, plum tomatoes and a bit of mayonnaise on a French Pullman loaf, is both filling and delicious. As was the salami and gorgonzola panino ($7) on ciabatta, slathered with a sun-dried tomato relish made rich and sweet with the additions of ginger, sugar and olive oil.

But it was the elevation of the lowly tuna salad sandwich ($6.50) that had us pleased and surprised. The unbelievably soft sweet-potato roll bookends the tuna salad -- mixed with celery, red onion, mayo, olive oil and honey mustard and topped with spring greens and hand-sliced thick dill pickle. Hasler says he likes that the pickle slabs give the sandwich "a homey feel, which plays into our concept."

Because Hasler used to work at Buck's Fishing & Camping, he and his partners -- Javier Rivas, 29, and Ryan Wisnor, 23 -- made the most of their ties to the restaurant when crafting the menu. James Alefantis, co-owner of Buck's, has stepped in as a mentor and consultant. "Yeah, we kind of ran all the ideas through him," Rivas says of Alefantis, who taste-tested the sandwiches before the cafe opened. They also hired a chef from Buck's to help out in the kitchen.

While changes have already been instituted, there are improvements they still hope to make: a wine and beer license, roasting their own coffee beans and purchasing more pastries from smaller producers. "Our first priority is just sprucing it up," says Hasler. "We kind of see ourselves as the caretakers of a location that's really important to the community."

-- Rina Rapuano (July 26, 2006)