Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Williamsburg for vegan comfort food with pizzaz.
Modern Love, a self-described "swanky vegan comfort food" restaurant that opened a few weeks ago in Williamsburg, announces itself on Union Avenue with a bold, building-sized mural and a cute little sign depicting some sort of turnip creature hanging out over the sidewalk. Both are designed by Ellen Wilde, and both styles give clues to the sort of dining experience that awaits you inside.
The main room is large, with high-ceilings, industrial details, and lots of dark wood. The lighting is dim—owner Isa Chandra Moskowitz said she made a conscious decision to go romantic and dramatic rather than bright and photo-friendly—and the mood feels right with the prices, which veer towards special-occasion territory for some of us. It seems to be working: on my two visits last week, three couples at neighboring tables were celebrating anniversaries.
But there are more whimsical touches here as well. The bathroom decor features predators and prey romping together as if no one ever gets eaten. The restaurant's entryway, with its playful typography, wall-mounted planters, and a narrow marble counter below staggered, geometric mirrors, wouldn't look out of place on the trendier streets of Nolita. The staff is unfailingly friendly and helpful, the playlist filled with indie favorites. It's all very welcoming and relaxing. Feel free to get comfortable.
Moscowitz, though a native of Brooklyn, opened her first Modern Love a couple of years ago in Omaha, Nebraska, a part of the country not known for its dainty portions. You won't find any such thing here, either. And unlike other newish vegan ventures around town, which emphasize lighter fare dominated by often raw fruits and vegetables, Modern Love is not afraid of piling on the starches, the "cream" sauces, and the soy-based proteins and wheat meats.
The two best dishes I ate here used tempeh, tofu's firmer, cakier cousin, for textural balance and a subtle earthiness, and the results were excellent. The simple Tempeh Stuffed Avocado
featured a mini mountain of the stuff, chopped into chunks and slathered in spicy mayo, exploding up from half a perfectly ripe avocado, a pile of watercress giving some crunch and bitterness, a drizzling of chili oil bringing the heat. This was the second time in a week I ate avocado paired with chili oil, and if other kitchens know what's good for them, I predict you'll soon be seeing this combo all over town.
Also very good was the Horseradish Tempeh entree, which arrives with a surprising amount of broth, but the soy "filet" and whipped potatoes hold up fine even submerged in the sauce, with pickled cabbage, various bitter greens, a bracing jolt of fresh horseradish filling things out nicely. The Stuffed Poblanos with Street Corn is a fine choice as well; although it piles a lot onto a plate, the dish gives everything enough space to register. The slabs of smoky yuba chicharrones and the fiery, charred rounds of some sort of squash were particularly memorable here.
Things can get overly heavy at Modern Love though. We enjoyed but couldn't possibly finish the platter of Mac & Shews, for example, with it's gloppy cashew cheese and fried squares of battered tofu offering little counterpoint to the thick, chewy pasta. The florets of fiery, BBQ cauliflower provide a bit of relief, but it's not enough. Same goes for the Truffled Poutine: the fries are cut thick and cornmeal-crusted, and there are a LOT of them under all that rich porcini gravy. Blobs of truffled almond ricotta taste good, but do nothing to lighten the load.
And you definitely will want to emerge from dinner with room for dessert, if my slice of Dulce de Leche Cream Pie was any indication of the kitchen's pastry-making skills. The shortbread crust on this pastry was superb, as was the dense, coconut cream pie filling and caramel sauce dribbled liberally on top.
Modern Love is a relative rarity in New York City, a serious—but not too serious—vegan restaurant with interesting, skillfully-made food that will also happily satisfy any omnivores at your table. Just don't overdo the heavier-sounding dishes, and definitely get dessert.
Modern Love is located at 317 Union Avenue between S 1st and S 2nd Streets, and is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10:00. Closed Monday and Tuesday. (929-298-0626; modernlovebrooklyn.com)