The first thing to do before you go to Modern Love, vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s first restaurant, is get a reservation. You’ll need one, because it’s already got a lively following.
The second thing to do is forget what you think “vegan” tastes like, because trust me, this isn’t what you think.
This is the “swanky vegan comfort food” that Omaha-based Moskowitz promised would be the focus of her restaurant. In fact, it’s so swanky you might not remember what you’re eating is meat-, dairy- and egg-free.
I’ll begin in familiar territory, with Moskowitz’s take on a Nebraska classic: chili and a cinnamon roll. Modern Love’s version comes in a giant bowl, easily enough for two hungry people, topped with a homemade pumpkin cinnamon roll.
The lentil and bean chili had a smoky, spicy flavor that belied its meatless origins. My vegetarian dining partner noted that the beans weren’t the kind that come from a can; they clearly started dry and were cooked slowly with rich broth and seasoning, creating deep flavor, a pleasantly chewy texture and just the right thickness. The bowl comes topped with dollops of vegan sour cream, a sprinkle of chopped green onion and chunks of roasted squash.
Moskowitz said the meatiness comes from slow-cooked red and green lentils, not a meat substitute, and its spicy warmth from a house blend of three kinds of toasted chili peppers.
The cinnamon roll arrived warm, sweet and seemingly buttery, with a light glaze of frosting, loads of cinnamon and a hint of seasonal pumpkin flavor.
Moskowitz is the perfect chef to bring Omaha its first vegan spot. The Brooklyn, New York, native went vegan in the 1990s and wrote her first cookbook in 2005. Since then, she’s become one of the most popular vegan chefs and cookbook writers in the country.
At Modern Love, she’s created an accessible mix; diners might be unfamiliar with ingredients, like seitan or cashew cream, but they know dishes, like mac and cheese and schnitzel. Her brand of comfort food is pure Nebraska, but in her own style.
Take, for instance, the mac and shews, the restaurant’s most popular entrée.
Cashew cheese coats the pasta in a tasty blanket, but where things get interesting is the rest of the dish. Instead of just serving us the pasta, the chefs — Moskowitz, Michaela Maxwell and Leia Jean Schmelzel (the former of Avoli Osteria and Kitchen Table, the latter of Brushi and both women formerly of the Boiler Room Restaurant) — combine the mac and shews with tangy roasted cauliflower coated in barbecue sauce, a pile of soft, tomatoey braised kale, and a hunk of flavorful pecan crusted tofu. It’s layered and nuanced, unfamiliar and familiar at once.
It happens again with a black bean tamale. The smoky Mexican appetizer felt like it could have floated down Saddle Creek Road from a South 24th Street spot, just minus the lard.
Grilled onion and tomato salsa, both sweet and tart, and smoky jalapeño guacamole amped up the flavor. A classic romesco sauce, made with finely ground roasted red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onion and almonds, brought it together. The texture and flavor of the soft masa and nicely cooked black beans hit the spot, and the colorful plate, full of red, purple, orange and green, looked as good as it tasted.
Her version of a classic burger comes in beet form. The Beet Burger Royale is a thick veggie patty that comes on a house-baked potato bun topped with house pickles, cashew cheese, vegan Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato and a hefty layer of avocado.
The best thing about it was its texture, which held together but wasn’t too uniform. Veggie burgers sometimes taste almost like a bowl of hummus formed into a patty and fried; that’s not the case here.
Even meat lovers from Omaha — let’s face it, this is a steak town — will find something to enjoy here, mostly because these are creative meatless dishes that can transform how and what a diner thinks food should taste like.
Service at Modern Love is friendly and informative, and the two waiters I had were happy to answer questions about those ingredients and flavors. Some diners might balk at a few of the prices. Salads and appetizers hover around $12, but most of the entrées run between $16 and $18. Moskowitz said the restaurant works with local farms — a more expensive choice — and tries to serve large portions to add value.
I found those prices reasonable after I saw the size of the portions — often enough for two — and tried the dishes.
On another night, my vegetarian sister and I shared the hummus plate with roasted vegetables, one of many gluten-free options. Though I love bread, I might eschew it again in favor of the pile of radiant roasted and pickled vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, radishes, pickled red onion and overnight tomatoes, which are seasoned roma tomatoes cooked overnight in a low oven. The highlight had to be dipping the slightly spicy roasted radishes into the balanced, just-spicy-enough hummus.
A big bowl of potato leek soup, half of it topped with crispy wild rice, small bits of chopped herb, onion, olive oil, roasted leek tops and a bright drizzle of lemon, tasted perfect for fall.
Texture came into play in the vegan Bibimbap, a take on the Korean dish. Sticky rice came topped with a citrusy sauce made from chili paste, garlic, shallots and some of the liquid from the kimchi; the sauce stood in brilliantly for egg yolk. Smoky, pan-seared Brussels sprouts, lightly pickled cold radishes, tangy kimchi, shiitake tempura and a fantastic miso-glazed tempeh triangle with a crisp tender bite finished the bowl.
If you go to Modern Love only for one thing, make it dessert. The vegan pie crust is so good it would fool a grandmother. The fillings meander through savory nuts and candied ginger, homemade graham crackers and cinnamony, caramelized fruit. I’d return for any of the desserts we sampled — apple pie, pumpkin cheesecake and a sundae topped with a warm vegan toasted marshmallow.
Diners will find unfamiliar food on the menu at Modern Love, and though the ingredient names may be new, the flavors aren’t. Yes, Modern Love is vegan. But it’s more than that. It’s downright fantastic.