Modern Love in the time of COVID-19Jun 25, 2020 10:22AM ● By Jill Nelsen Hing
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Isa Chandra Moskowitz made a groundbreaking move when she opened her swanky little vegan restaurant, Modern Love, in the meat-loving heartland of America in 2014. Showcasing ingredients grown locally makes perfect sense in the agricultural Midwest, yet few others seemed to be doing it. The restaurant has since proven that even devout Omaha carnivores can get on board with well-crafted, delicious vegan food. Modern Love did something special; it revealed the Midwestern vegan hiding inside all of us.
I first discovered Modern Love while visiting family and friends in Nebraska. I was intrigued: who was this brave soul inviting Nebraskans to venture into the unexplored world of plant-based eating? I couldn’t wait to find out and made a reservation immediately.
On our first visit (it was then at the Saddle Creek location), my sister and I started with a couple of glasses of hibiscus tea and looked over the smart menu. The dishes artfully walk the line between familiar and unfamiliar ingredients, allowing newbies to vegan cuisine to decide whether to play it safe or get adventurous.
We opted for some locally grown grilled asparagus, served cold and dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette, so the focus was on the bright, summery flavor. A kale Caesar salad was next. Although many have grown weary of kale appearing on every menu for the past decade or so, I really like it, so I continue to order it. I especially like it at Modern Love: the kale holds its own against the strong flavors of a reinvented Caesar dressing, which gets a punch of salt from the addition of capers instead of traditional anchovies.
Ordering gnocchi when I see it is almost an involuntary reflex for me, but while I am always hopeful, I am often disappointed. Making a good tender gnocchi is a skill not mastered by all. I am pleased to report that Modern Love’s gnocchi did not disappoint. It was perfectly chewy, served with a tasty, substantial sauce well-suited to the heartiness of the potato pasta. My sister ordered the delicious polenta romesco. This red pepper–almond romesco with chickpeas, potatoes, kale, and Brussels sprouts really hit the mark. Serving it alongside perfectly grilled poppyseed polenta balanced the dish by adding textural dimension. The effect was homey, with deep flavors that made us want to keep going back for more.
Discovering this sweet little restaurant with its open kitchen and friendly vibe was an unexpected treat. I was impressed; I headed home to New York, knowing I would eat at Modern Love next time I was in town.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I found Modern Love about to open in my own Brooklyn neighborhood. Since it opened in 2016 I have eaten at the Williamsburg restaurant a number of times. The dining room, with high ceilings and industrial chandeliers, has a cool, modern vibe. And, even with plenty of room to accommodate a large party, the space manages to feel cozy and welcoming.
As in Omaha, the Brooklyn menu is a vegan take on classic comfort food. To recreate the slow food that we all crave, the kitchen embraces meat substitutes. Nuts, in lieu of dairy, are used to add depth and creaminess to sauces. (A mac & shew, made with cashew milk, may satisfy a cheese craving for a dedicated vegan, but I found it too rich to eat more than a few bites.)
The cauliflower wings were easily sharable and a unanimous success; crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and all around addictive–as spicy fried food often is. These were especially delicious washed down with a sweetly tart passion fruit margarita, rimmed with salt of course. Although I am always wary of Brussels sprouts being overcooked and tragically dying in vain, I cross my fingers and order them anyway; these, perfectly cooked and served with garlic aioli, did not disappoint. The standout dish on the menu was the Asian-inspired lettuce wraps with crumbled seitan. The seitan filling captured the always satisfying sweet/sour/salt/spice flavor that we all look forward to when ordering an Asian-inspired dish. The cool crunch of the fresh lettuce made it a perfect bite.
A grilled Caesar salad was fantastic (although the portion was unnecessarily large). Grilling romaine proves a delicious way to showcase the natural sweetness of the lettuce. Serving it whole prevents it from being overdressed, allowing the lettuce to remain the star of the dish. Polenta croutons, instead of the usual bread, were a nice touch. Everything we ordered was plated beautifully, though the literal plates were large–almost uncomfortably large. They sometimes made sharing difficult and often left the waitperson struggling to navigate the table.
Modern Love successfully created a menu with enough diversity and artfulness to satisfy appetites both vegan and not. The cuisine–beautiful, satisfying, plant-based, and delicious–reflects the love it is made with.
Under the weight of the current COVID-19 crisis, Modern Love thought it best to temporarily close their Brooklyn location. A recent dinner–meant to inform and update this review–was canceled as a result.
This article was printed in the July/August 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.