I probably use the word “ambitious” too often when writing about chefs. Hopefully from the context of what I've written, you understand what I mean when I use that adjective; it's meant to convey that the chef pushes boundaries and that you should expect to be interested or even surprised when you experiencehis or her food. I say that I may use it too often, because today I'm writing about Phillip Lopez, a chef whose cooking is more imaginative than just about any chef in New Orleans since Frank Brunacci held court at the Ritz-Carlton.
Ambition without the ability to back it up is not an admirable trait. You can be as ambitious as you want, but if you can't carry it off, you'll likely fail spectacularly.
The first time I dined at a restaurant where Lopez was cooking, Rambla, I recall thinking that he might fall into that category before I'd had a bite of his food. My concern was the foie-li-pop, a mousse of foie gras garnished with watermelon pop rocks and surrounded by foie gras cotton candy. In concept it struck me as an over-reach; an attempt to be daring for the sake of being daring. I found it more interesting than I'd expected, and while it still wasn't my cup of tea, everything else I tasted demonstrated to me that Lopez has the skill to match his imagination.
Last month Root took over the space that formerly housed the nose-to-tail restaurant Feast, and it's been given a pretty significant renovation. The dining room has been condensed by the addition of a wall where Feast had a raised seating area, and the generous space between tables means that there are probably 15 fewer seats. That makes for a more comfortable dining experience, even if there aren't as many paying seats for the restaurant.
The menu starts with a section called “socials” that features patés, rillettes, cured meats and sausages. The Moroccan-spiced pork and duck rillettes were excellent, as were the house-made pickled radish, peach, pears, celery root, carrots, cherries and pineapple that accompanied the potted meat. Pickles such as these show up elsewhere on the menu, and the care with which they're made displays a welcome attention to detail.
The “beginnings” section of the menu includes the pickled shrimp with shrimp-stuffed deviled eggs that Lopez introduced at Rambla, and which are one of his signatures. He's also got Korean fried chicken wings on that portion of the menu. They're large, meaty wings that are fried, then coated in a sweet-spicy glaze. Another beginner, sesame-crusted pork cheeks, are served with pretzel-and-pork dumplings, pineapple and young basil fronds. The meat had a fantastic texture; tender but not falling apart, and without the amount of fat I'd assumed it would contain. It's a hearty dish, and a sizeable portion for an appetizer.
One of the dishes on the “middles” portion of the menu, aloo gobi, is the chef's take on an Indian standard of cauliflower and potatoes. Lopez includes small, round Thai eggplant in the dish, and roasts the cauliflower with a good bit of chile and turmeric. It's garnished with corn nuts made in-house; again, that could be seen as an affectation, but in practice the nuts provide a textural contrast to the vegetables. It's a good dish to share.
The most interesting dish on the “principals” portion of the menu is the cohiba-smoked scallops, which are precisely what they sound like. The tobacco-smoked scallops are served in a cigar box lined with parchment paper that comes complete with a Surgeon General's warning. When the lid is opened, a waft of cigar smoke issues forth. It might not sound appetizing, but the tobacco doesn't leave the scallops tasting like an ashtray; it registers in the background, significant but not overpowering. The same is true of the chorizo “dust” that tops the scallops; it's a seasoning that accents the sweetness of the scallops. The dish is served over a fennel-and-bacon choucroute with caramelized cauliflower. It's a hell of a dish.
Lacquered Pork Belly pairs the fatty meat with an eggplant purée, pickled figs and yogurt flavored with ground coriander. There's a sweetness to the dish that Lopez balances with the tartness of the yogurt – it didn't work for me, but it was still a well-executed plate.
Desserts are as innovative as the rest of the menu, if not more so. Ambrosia is a combination of peach gelee, pear sorbet, charred apricot, “fizzy rocks” and citrus. A sweet corn caramel flan comes with caramel ice cream, vanilla milk foam and house-made “cracker jacks” with caramel corn and roasted peanuts.
Root is open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., then again from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday evenings, and until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Call them at 252-9480.