At New Orleans’ Root, whimsy and wit on the table

Advocate photo by SCOTT GOLD -- A salad of fresh heirloom tomatoes and lemon fish cured like a country ham.
Advocate photo by SCOTT GOLD -- A salad of fresh heirloom tomatoes and lemon fish cured like a country ham.

BEAUTY AND THE FEAST

Two years ago this November, Chef Phillip Lopez opened Root, a restaurant unlike anything New Orleans had seen: a funhouse of modernist cuisine, where the dishes would be both delicious and gleefully wacky on the palate as well as the plate.

“It was a total gamble, opening Root,” Lopez said. “It was so different, we knew that we would either be very successful, or we’d fail hard, and there’s not going to be anything in between that. But I knew that if we stayed true to ourselves and our vision, in trying to change the landscape here and push the envelope — and doing our best to utilize our local ingredients and work with farmers to source the food well — we could make it happen.”

To the benefit of New Orleans diners looking for novelty in a culinary landscape steeped in centuries of dining tradition, Root has been an unqualified success. Much of the success is owed directly to the passions and tireless dedication (not to mention whimsical imagination) of Chef Lopez and his staff. The aim is to transform the way people think about food in New Orleans.

“I think we get pigeonholed into the stereotype of being these funny-talking, alligator-wrestling people, and it makes me angry, because we’re so much more than that,” noted the chef. “Everything I put on the plate here, all of the elements, they’re all from here. So often those exotic elements get lost in Creole spice or bearnaise sauce — and there’s always going to be a place for that — but I’ve always said that food needs to be fun. It needs to evoke an emotional response that’s happy, where you sit down and you smile and maybe giggle because Cocoa Puffs are on the menu.”

There’s no denying that Lopez and his crew have a blast playing with their food. One might be under the impression that such devotion to whiz-bang kitchen chemistry would result in soulless gimmickry. But Root could never have succeeded on quirky presentations and cheekily named dishes; New Orleans diners do not stand for food that isn’t, to put it simply, good.

“You can spend millions of dollars on all this fancy equipment —- cotton candy machine, sous vide, immersion circulators, ultrasonic homogenizers, rotary evaporators — but at the end of the day, if the food isn’t good, all you have is really expensive junk on a plate. That’s where the idea behind modern cuisine and molecular gastronomy gets contrived: It should always be an accessory to a really great outfit, but never the star.”

If you’re curious about how this plays out on the plate, consider what came of a recent visit to Root. The meal began simply, with a charcuterie board featuring house-cured meats — spala, Szechuan beef tendon, “face bacon,” rosemary guanciale — a variety of pickles and flatbread, which are served with blueberry mustard squeezed out of a paint tube (individually priced, or the “Grand Board” featuring all 14 varieties for $55).

Salads were invitingly fresh as well as amusing, including heirloom tomatoes with compressed melons, “pecorino petals” and slices of fish cured to resemble country ham ($13), and the “Root salad” ($12), which of course featured a variety of earthy root vegetables and a “vegetable ash puree.”

The fun continued with Root’s famous “menage a foie” ($24), a trio of foie gras preparations that clearly belie the chef’s admitted love of Dr. Seuss: foie pate served with marinated mushrooms and a house-made Funyun, a “living terrarium of foie gras” with bourbon Dippin’ Dots, and the much buzzed-about “foielly pop,” made of foie gras cotton candy and Pop Rocks.

Outlandish? Hilarious? Crazy? Definitely. But also wonderful.

Main courses included a roasted Cobia ($32) with sunchoke puree, artichoke bariguole, panzanella salad, and the unforgettable “black lacquered duck” ($30), one of the finest preparations of fowl to be found in the city, if not the entire South.

Served with wild mushrooms, snap beans, pickled pearl onions and “rutabaga sardalaise,” it is the perfect combination of sweet, savory and vegetal.

Rounding out the evening were a brilliant African Amarula carrot cake ($10), as well as a refreshing, deconstructed crumble featuring peach eucalyptus buttermilk gelato ($10).

Dining at Root is a fabulously unique experience, and the service is difficult to beat. New Orleans is glad to have it.

But Chef Lopez is hardly resting on his hard-won laurels. Coming this fall — hopefully October, although Lopez is reluctant to give a fixed date — will be another venture: Square Root, which aims to set the bar even higher when it comes to modern fine dining in the Crescent City. Featuring a single, 16-seat chef’s table right in the kitchen and a 16-course tasting menu that will serve as a conversation between chefs and diners, as well as an upstairs lounge focusing on modern mixology, Square Root will incorporate what Lopez and his team have accomplished at their first restaurant and take it wildly further.

“There are only going to be about four of us in the kitchen, and it’s going to be a show,” said Lopez. “It’s hard to put into words about exactly how it’s all going to happen, but the experience is going to be unlike anything anybody’s had in this city. You look at Alinea, or Brooklyn Fare, or El Bulli, Minibar, all these places: New Orleans have never seen anything like this before. It’s going to redefine New Orleans dining and revolutionize it for 10 years to come.”