An Ambitious Opening

At some point late last year it seemed as though I had been hearing that Square Root’s opening was “imminent” since approximately 1994. Every time I saw Max Ortiz he’d shrug and tell me they were close, and I felt for him because we both knew he’d told me the same thing the last time I’d seen him. But very soon we’ll get to see if the wait was worth it.

Square Root is sui generis in New Orleans. It won’t be the first restaurant to feature ambitious, imaginative cooking, or the first restaurant with a truly open kitchen. It won’t be the first restaurant where the meal is the destination, not a precursor to a movie or another event. It will, however, be the first restaurant in New Orleans where the “chef’s table” is the only seating available, where you won’t find anything but imaginative, ambitious cooking and where the menu is a set 12 to 15 course affair.

I am a fan of chef Lopez’s cooking and I have known Max Ortiz for quite a while. I once spent a few hours in the kitchen at Root during dinner service observing chef Lopez and his team. I mention these things because I want to be up front about my biases; I like these guys. But the truth is that regardless of my feelings about Lopez and Ortiz personally, Square Root’s concept could have been designed by someone plumbing my innermost thoughts and dreams to come up with the restaurant most likely to give me a food-nerd boner.

It’s a testament to how much interest there is in the place that over the last six to eight months I’ve had a lot of people ask me about Square Root, and recently those questions have almost always included something about the price. A meal at Square Root is going to cost $150 a person.

Here’s how they break it down on the website, “We offer a 12 to 15 course tasting for $150 per person INCLUSIVE of tax and service charge. This charge includes: Dinner $115.61 + Tax $11.27 + Service Charge $23.1 2…” Drinks are not included, but there are options to pair wines at either $65 or $85 per person. Corkage is $30 per bottle.

For a meal in New Orleans, that’s a lot. When you consider the base $150 is inclusive of tax and tip, it’s entirely comparable to other fine-dining restaurants in town, but at a minimum of $215 a head with wine, that’s steep.

Are there enough food-nerds in New Orleans to support a place like Square Root? I don’t know, to be honest, but I think so. The place is likely going to be full for the first couple of months, assuming the online-only reservation system works. The real test is going to be around a year from now, when the novelty has worn off for most people.

My guess is that this is going to be a destination restaurant for locals as well as visitors. I think the more casual, small-plates centered place that will occupy the second floor of the joint, Root Squared, will do a hell of a lot of business. I think it will expose a lot of people to chef Lopez’s food without requiring quite the same outlay of money and will thereby drive business to the first floor. I think the place as a whole will be a success, in other words, but I’m no expert and I suppose we could look back years from now and see Square Root as the high-water mark of the current restaurant boom in New Orleans.

My hope is that instead, we’ll look back on Square Root as yet another milestone in the continuing evolution of dining in New Orleans, and that 10 years from now the idea of a restaurant serving 15 course tasting menu for $150 a head will provoke yawns rather than gasps. We’re never going to be New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, where that’s already the case, but we have a food culture that none of those places can match, and there’s no reason we can’t support a place as ambitious as Square Root.

If you go, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the meal. Email me and I’ll try to incorporate your experience (with attribution, of course) into what I write about the place when I eventually dine there. 


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