WHY IT’S NOTEWORTHY
Like Commander’s Palace in the 1970s, Mr. B’s in the 1980s, Emeril’s in the 1990s, and August in the 2000s, Root is the current New Orleans restaurant of the future. Everything on the table makes a clean break with the past. The ingredients seem to come from a different culture. Many are manufactured (that’s the perfect word for the process) on site, using techniques that were unknown in restaurant kitchens just a few years ago. The presentations are visually rich and highly original. Yet the pleasures of eating are here in full measure. All this stuff, even the weird parts, are delicious. The stories of its provenance are a stimulating bonus.
The chef pioneers new ideas on every front. Many are influenced by Spanish molecular cookery, the big story in European cookery for the past ten years. To make a long story short, techniques once limited to food labs have made it into restaurant kitchens. Vegetables become gels. Meats–cut from parts of the pig or cow you may never have heard of before–become amalgams with other meats and vegetables. A wide range of items are hosed down with liquid nitrogen and take on other-worldly shapes ands textures. Much reliance is placed on locally-obtained ingredients, but many of those are unconventional. All of this sets off internal warnings of contrivances ahead to those with traditionally-tuned palates. False alarm! The sensual pleasures here are at least as fine and integral to this food as the mental stimulations.
Chef Phillip Lopez was an army brat, traveling the world before entering the culinary world in the Northeast and winding up in the employ of John Besh here in New Orleans. He returned to the D.C. area after Katrina, working for a time at the celebrated Citronelle. He returned to the Besh fold, then took over as chef of the hip Spanish restaurant Rambla. Root’s co-owner and dining room boss Maximilian Ortiz also came through the Besh machine. In late 2011, the pair renovated thrice-failed restaurant space (most recently Feast) in the burgeoning Restaurant Zone of the Warehouse District. Blastoff! Reservations are now essential.
The design of the restaurant is giddy, modern, and marginally comfortable. Most of the chairs are advanced patio furniture, their color and design creates the illusion of a tropical garden in what is obviously a heavily-beamed, dark, industrial space. The dining room staff is firmly plugged into the kitchen’s unique projects. The servers not only explain the dishes well but give excellent guidance to help make up your mind. (Or take a plunge into something radical.) This is a late-night restaurant, the dining room not filling until after eight and still seating at eleven–two a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Show up before six-thirty, and you can almost always get a table without a reservation.
The menu changes frequently.
Charcuterie, available individually as part of a board:
Pâté de campagne
Face bacon (smoked, cured hog’s head)
Citrus cured lamb pancetta
»Truffle scented chicken liver parfait
»Moroccan spiced pork and duck rillettes
Chocolate espresso lamb bresaola
»Juniper spiced duck prosciutto
»Chicken, beef, duck ballottine
Rosemary cured guanciale
Hog’s head cheese
Sausages, available individually or as a platter:
»Morcilla (Spanish style blood sausage)
Chorizo (pimentón spiced sausage)
»Merguez (Moroccan style lamb sausage)
Butifarra (Spanish style garlic sausage)
Longanisa fresca (Catalonian style sausage)
Salchichas (Mexican style sausage)
»Cervelat (Swiss style sausage)
Zungenwurst (German style tongue sausage)
»Loukaniko (Greek style smoked sausage)
Salad: petite greens, blood oranges, pickled shiitakes, herbed cheese, candied smoked pecans
Louisiana pickled shrimp, deviled eggs
»Grilled compressed watermelon salad, tuna, local goat feta, avocado, chili lime vinaigrette
»Roasted peaches, herbed Creole cream cheese, pickled olives, chocolate chorizo vinaigrette
»Roasted tricolor pickled beets, face bacon, blue cheese, raspberries, pistachios
Ménage à foie du jour
Chicharrones (pork cracklings and belly, mole de sangre, lemon balm chimichurri
»Szechuan beef tendon, crispy tofu, field pea salad
Korean-style fried chicken wings, pepper jelly glaze, kimchee
»Indian-style potatoes, cauliflower, baby eggplant
»Black lacquered duck tortellini, orange mascarpone, toasted pine nuts, vanilla tapioca, duck tea
Caramelized brussels sprouts, apples, onions, bacon, pepper jelly vinaigrette
»Tea-smoked yard bird, wild mushrooms, romesco, Peruvian fingerling potatoes, pan jus
Lacquered pork belly, burnt eggplant purée, pickled figs, sugar snap peas, Indian spiced yogurt
»Coriander grilled gulf fish, cauliflower puree, roasted shrimp chocolate bouillabaisse, truffled celery-root shrimp salad
Herb-encrusted lamb loin, parsnip bark, strawberry shiitake barigoule, parsnips
Ribeye steak, black cherry bordelaise, beef heart gremolata
»Cohiba [cigar!]-smoked scallops, chorizo dust, caramelized cauliflower, fennel choucroute
Roasted marrow bones, face bacon jam, smoked capers, blood orange gremolata
»Vermicelli salad, charred shallots, bean sprouts, garlic chili paste with choice of tofu, chicken or pork belly
“Root beer” float, black apple jack soda, caramel apple pecan ice cream, apple strudel tart, applejack gingersnaps
»Burnt blood orange meringue, black sesame praline, bergamot ice cream, Pistachio sponge cake, calamondin chutney
Toasted almond cake, smoked black tea honey crunch,
strawberry sour cream ice cream, strawberry gel, fizzy rocks
»Flan of salted corn, caramel ice cream, vanilla milk foam, “crackerjacks”
»Yorkie chocolate covered peppermint pattie, mint chocolate chip ice cream, cocoa puffs, minted milk
FOR BEST RESULTS
Root’s menu is divided unconventionally, and encourages plate-sharing. The three levels of starters (“Socials,” “Beginnings,” and “Middles,”) are all bigger than the entrees (“Principals”), and a single person will find them hard to finish. That’s especially true of the broad array of house-made sausages and other charcuterie. All are as deftly-made as you’ll find anywhere else, and more imaginative. The boards bearing them are richly textured with a half-dozen or so garnishes, all uniquely wrought in house. Also, pay close attention to the complimentary amuse-bouche and intermezzo courses, for which the chef does his most thoughtful work. Finally, know that the entrees come closest to conventional restaurant food. In case you have a non-experimental diner with you.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Everything I’d wish for here–tablecloths, napkins instead of dishtowels, bread service–is an artifact of an earlier dining vogue. Who am I to say it they have a place in the next generation of dining out, in a restaurant whose main theme is exploring that future?
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +2
- Value +1
- Attitude +2
- Wine & Bar +1
- Hipness +3
- Local Color +2
- Open Monday lunch and dinner
- Open until 11 p.m.; 2 a.m. FR SA
- Unusually large servings
- Pay valet parking
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
This is the age of the chef-philosopher, and the newest professor on the local scene is Phillip Lopez, the proprietor of Root. “Cooking is a form of communication, and I want to talk to my guests through each bite they take,” he says. As pretentious as that sounds, Lopez and Root actually deliver the hedonistic substance of food in a thrilling new way. Far from taking their project too seriously, Root’s team seems almost playful, with ingredients and methods that remind one of a nine-year-old’s kitchen experiments. (Using molecular methods to make what tastes exactly like Cocoa Puffs, for example.) Of course, it’s stuff like this that attracts attention. And fires the creativity that makes the entire enterprise as good as it is.