Isa Chandra Moskowitz describes the menu of Modern Love, her recently opened Williamsburg restaurant, as “swanky vegan comfort food,” but mostly it’s just inspired by the food she ate growing up here in the city.
“When people think comfort food, they might think Southern, but I just look at all different types of food that have comforted me throughout my life,” she says on a Thursday afternoon at the restaurant, as staff prepares for their 5:30 p.m. opening. “Chinese food, Indian food, Jewish food obviously. Our menu has some Russian influences, some French-Canadian influences, but it’s really all through the lens of a Brooklyn Jew.”
The renowned vegan cookbook author grew up in Sheepshead Bay, but spent her teen years in the city’s punk rock scene, later running the DIY public access cooking show Post Punk Kitchen.
On my recent visit with a group of friends, the most popular dish was the Seitan Chops and Applesauce, served crispy and seasoned with rosemary over gingered sweet potatoes and seared brussels sprouts. A close second was the Mac & Shews, made from cashew-cream cheese and served with sides of pecan-cornmeal crusted tofu, BBQ cauliflower, sautéed kale, and spicy pecans. Dessert was their perfect apple berry crisp accompanied by house-made vanilla bean ice cream and coconut whip. The menu is likely to change seasonally, which is also the case at Moskowitz’s Nebraska location, Modern Love Omaha, established in 2014.
“Ninety percent of our customers in Nebraska aren’t vegan. And they’re having their first vegan food. It’s pretty incredible,” Moskowitz says. “It’s the highest rated restaurant on Yelp, and it’s vegan, in land of Omaha Steaks. In fact, the Omaha Steaks guy has been in and loved it.”
For Moskowitz, who first went vegan as a sixteen-year-old punk exploring the city’s DIY squats and activist centers, Modern Love was a way to come home. She left the city eight years ago, feeling crushed by the way it was changing. “I became an angry New Yorker,” Moskowitz says. “I was angry that my neighborhood was gentrifying. I was angry that everybody from the Midwest moved here and raised the prices. I couldn’t afford to live here; my family couldn’t afford to live here. It became a city I didn’t recognize anymore.”
Moskowitz moved first to Portland, Oregon in 2008, and then later to Omaha, cities that influenced her approach to vegan cooking as well, primarily thanks to having more space, bigger kitchens, dishwashers, and most importantly, a chance to embrace gardening. “I got connected to food in a different way,” she said. “It was nice to walk out into my backyard and pick my tomatoes for the day. It changed my life.”
The menu at Modern Love makes use of fancy additions like edible flowers and sprinkles of beetroot powder without seeming pretentious. And while the prices are not super cheap (starters range from $8-12, entrees from $18-22), they are relatively accessible for those looking to splurge on something nice.
“I don’t want to use the word fancy,” she says. “Swanky has a tongue-and-cheek feel to it. It’s not just food thrown on a plate. But we don’t use tweezers. We try in a casual way to make it look really pretty.”
Through her approach to cooking and cookbooks (she’s written eight, including Vegan with a Vengeance, co-authoring Veganomicon with Terry Hope Romero, and a holiday title on the way this year), Moskowitz carries a spirit of activism, a dynamic that that grew out of her involvement with punk.
“It was really direct,” she explains. “Punks were like, ‘You want to change the world but you won’t even change yourself?’ It made me want to be a better person.”
Through that subversive scene, Moskowitz could hone her craft on her own terms. “With punk, you’re always cooking,” she says. “A band is coming through town, you’re cooking for them. Food Not Bombs, you’re cooking. Potlucks. Like most cultures, it’s pretty centered around food.”
Moskowitz adds that going vegan provided her with a sense of community, and even brought her closer with her own family. “My mom came home with some vegan cookbooks, and we started cooking together,” she says. She cites books like 1982’s Tofu Cookery by Louise Hagler as life-changing. “All of my friends would come over for vegan Thanksgiving and other holidays. We’d just have fun and be frivolous and cook and that’s kind of what created the community.”
“I still think the best way to reach people about veganism is the food, and making it delicious and beautiful and accessible and understandable,” Moskowitz says. “To hit all of those points is hard, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t think anybody is going to go vegan if the food isn’t exceptional.”