200 Julia St., New Orleans, 504-252-9480
Root opened late in 2011 in a Warehouse District space that had seen a few restaurants come and go in recent years. Immediately, though, Root set itself apart from its predecessors and from practically any other restaurant in town. Chef Philip Lopez is a New Orleans native with exciting ideas for the future of his hometown's cuisine, and a meal at his restaurant makes for quite a ride.
The restaurant is in a vintage warehouse space with thick beams overhead but a very modern design worked into the rest of the package. Dinner is always busy, and the restaurant keeps very late hours (after midnight in many cases), catering to fellow service industry types. The volume at lunch is largely dependent on the nearby convention center and can thus be unpredictably busy or sparse.
Service is smart but unobtrusive, on task but not in your face. This is especially impressive considering the complexity of the food. The staff are always lifting lids, pouring broth or milk, presenting and explaining. If it sometimes feels like you're receiving a narrative instead of a meal, it is important to have some guidance here and the staff come across as well-informed ambassadors and true-believers in their chef's vision.
The menu begins with an extraordinarily long list of sausages and charcuterie, and this is a good place for you to start too. These meats go far beyond the now-commonplace sliced meats and get into such exotica as espresso-cured lamb tongue and truffled chicken liver parfait. Boards are assembled with an equally eclectic assortment of accoutrements (pickled radishes, watermelon relish, homemade strawberry mustard in tiny foil tubes) and crisp crackers. Next up are 'beginnings,' which serve the same role as appetizers but tend to be much larger than usual, though they're often more expensive too. The pickled shrimp have a firm texture and sweet flavor, and they're served in a ceramic egg crate-type platter with deviled eggs. Oysters are smoked before they're fried, and then served over a soft, pudding-like corn spoonbread with a meaty jus and a whiff of foam that tastes like mustard greens. The aloo gobi is a huge bowl of potatoes, caramelized cauliflower, chunks of eggplant and profuse herbs. It's pretty oily but also heady and redolent with Indian spices. The 'menage a foie' is a changing riff on foie gras that doubles as a reminder that this restaurant may not be for everyone. The fatted liver is spun into something like cotton candy, or turned into mousse with Pop Rocks, all in a way that may fascinate those who buy in to the concept but leave others scratching their heads and checking their wallets. Then again, there are always the sausage platters to keep things hearty and familiar.
The chef's risk-taking style rolls on through the entrees, perhaps best represented by his Cohiba-smoked scallops. Cohiba is a brand of cigar, and not only do these scallops arrive in a cigar box, the box is opened at the table to emit a waft of cigar smoke, which puts the marine sweetness of the scallops in a whole new context. Chorizo 'dust' (little bits of sausage), caramelized cauliflower and fennel-flavored cabbage are along for the ride. Even the dishes that might seem like safety hedges pack unexpected flavors lots of restaurants serve hanger steak now, for instance, but this is the only one I've seen to serve it with a citrusy burnt orange Bordelaise and a gremolata strewn with bits of beef heart. The lacquered duck has a Chinese aspect, while the redfish, delicately cooked with the slow, vacuum-powered sous vide method, gets a Latin dose of clam, shrimp and octopus escabeche. The glazed pork belly is joined on the plate by poached lobster, and for those with a taste for the truly offbeat there's lamb brain schnitzel over pasta. The only real snoozer here is the vermicelli noodle bowl, a modification on Vietnamese bun that's done better at any number of pho joints. If you're making the trip to Root, order something you can't get anywhere else.
Don't skip dessert, even if you just order one for the table to share. They are as inventive and impressive as the rest of the menu. Exhibit A: the Yorkie, a house-made peppermint patty with mint chocolate ice cream broken over a bowl of chocolate puffs, like the Coco Puffs cereal, with a mint-flavored milk poured over it all from a little kettle. Exhibit B: your standard caramel flan, only made with sweet corn, traced with a sticky, mellow-sweet vanilla milk foam and garnished with house made Cracker Jacks.
There's a full bar and a selection that mixes enough familiar and unusual choices to keep things interesting.
This is a fine-dining restaurant moving toward the higher end of the spectrum. Most 'beginnings' begin in the teens and entrees reside in the high-twenties. A couple should expect to spend at least $120 on a serious meal here, though people who are both curious and on a budget can sample a dish or two without breaking the bank. The bar is a good place to do that, or at lunch when you're less likely to splurge on drinks.
The cuisine is utterly modern, sometimes even a bit wild, but even as far afield as the concepts can go the execution and flavors deliver big time. Just when it looks like things are going over the top, something grounds it. You can trust this chef. Put yourself in his hands and you're in for an adventurous romp through each course.