Restaurants labeled “modern American” really have no set definition, but there is a recent strain of the genre known for puddle-jumping from one cuisine to another dish by dish. Reading straight down a menu, one might see razor clams with yuzu kosho and nori followed by shrimp and grits; poutine with bone marrow gravy; lamb neck marinated in pomegranate molasses and yogurt; and yellowtail collar over a bed of kimchi. In the most skilled hands, this sort of advanced grafting can show off a chef’s restive creativity and grasp of pluralism. Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal, as one Los Angeles example, does this sort of thing very well.
As of-the-moment as this culinary ethos can seem, it has precedent in the vegetarian and vegan restaurants that emerged across the country in the 1970s and through the 1990s. I cooked in these types of places while kicking around America in my 20s. Every kitchen had a copy of “The Greens Cookbook” by Deborah Madison, who founded Greens restaurant in San Francisco in 1979. She too plucked recipes from the world’s cuisines: Moroccan carrot salad, eggplant and mushroom pastitsio, dals and vegetable curries, black bean enchiladas and pastas and shepherd’s pie. Left to lesser cooks (and I worked with some of them back then), a careful patchwork could devolve into a random muddle.
Three-month-old Nic’s on Beverly, a plant-based restaurant that bills itself as a “love letter to Los Angeles,” follows the new-old formula: Most of the familiar-sounding dishes evoke individual cuisines, with a couple of salad-specific nods to Southern California. Nic Adler, the namesake, is culinary director for the Coachella festival and co-founder of Monty’s Good Burger, a small, expanding chain serving splendidly messy, smash-style vegan burgers that are among the best in the city.
With Nic’s he strides into the domain of midscale dining. If at first the long space looks deserted, particularly earlier in the evening or at brunch, it’s because every customer has gravitated to the lush patio in the back. The courtyard’s shielding tree, around which tables are clustered, made the outdoor area a draw when the building previously housed the Ponte, an Italian restaurant, and French-inspired Terrine not long before it. Adler added plants and cascading vines around the walls to make the nook into even more of a verdant refuge.
The food too is meant to offer sanctuary, in the form of universal comforts that happen to be entirely meat-free. I’m all for it; exquisite cooking in no way depends on the presence of meat. Unfortunately, under chefs Steven Fretz and Ryan Ososky, what’s missing on the plates at Nic’s is not animal protein but creative excitement.
About the salads, for instance: One of them aims to riff on the flavors of Chinois on Main’s chicken salad. A beloved staple, certainly, if a regressive choice to venerate, but I’d hope the dressing would detonate with mustard and sesame and pickled ginger. This is instead a mound of chopped vegetables with little flavor or vitality or impetus to keep eating it.
An heirloom tomato and peach salad is finishing an end-of-season run. I ate countless variations of the combination over the summer. This one includes pistachios, a peachy vinaigrette and slivers of an impressive take on brie, from vegan cheese expert Jules Aron, made from cashew milk. Only, the tomatoes and peaches served to me weren’t ripe. We live in the cradle of abundance: If the fruit isn’t at its peak, swap it out for whatever truly is in its prime. How does a vegetable-centric restaurant in Los Angeles miss that mark?
Then I start thinking about the salad’s price: $22. Even with a smattering of expensive non-dairy cheese, that still registers as steep. So does a $29 monotonous Moroccan chickpea tagine, a tomatoey affair crowned with some browned cauliflower florets that is bulked out with a side of rice. A cursory flip through Paula Wolfert’s seminal “The Food of Morocco” provides so many compelling ideas for tagine flavor iterations: preserved lemon, fennel and olives; prunes, almonds and cumin; saffron, dates and cinnamon. Instead of looking to Morocco, this one trots out vadouvan, a spice blend that trended earlier this decade with roots that trace back to French colonialism in India. Why?
Potato pierogies with peach butter prompt none of the usual joy that dumplings engender. Gummy gnocchetti fells an eggplant-based spin on Bolognese with almond ricotta; the sauce would be appealing with a silkier pasta.
What does work? Tempura avocado tacos with salsa verde; an easygoing conceit, three to an order, gone in a few squishy, gently spiced bites. Tomato pizza with high, crusty edges, modeled on the Detroit style that’s popular of late, nails the comfort quotient. I’m no fan of the falafel burger — it is mushy and it makes me long for a double Monty’s cheeseburger with onions — but the spuds alongside, hello. They’re shaved potatoes stacked into a gratin, and then cut into thick rectangles and deep-fried; they remind me of a similarly narcotic dish at Angler in the Beverly Center. The good-natured servers will bring you a side of them solo.
In these handful of successful efforts, I glimpse what could be at Nic’s on Beverly. But as a city, as a collective culture, we’re past dubiously conceived and ambiguously seasoned vegetarian cooking. Give us a sense of place, give us moxie, comfort us with surprise and context and imagination. This is a golden age for myriad kinds of dining. Vegan restaurants aren’t exempt from reaching higher too.
8265 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 746-5130, nicsonbeverly.com
Prices: dinner dishes $15-$28, lunch and brunch dishes $15-$23, desserts $10-$12
Details: Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
Recommended: avocado tempura tacos; Detroit-style pizza; gratin fries; excellent, not-too-sweet nonalcoholic cocktails such as the Daisy