New restaurants in N.O. vary approaches toward expansion

Recipe for growth

Open a burger joint or coffee shop and the path to expansion can be as clear as a roadmap: find a good location and replicate.

For chef-driven restaurants, the prospect is often more complicated. The chefs have their own brands to project, though they usually want each new restaurant to have its own appeal. The ever-growing New Orleans restaurant scene keeps giving more, and more varied, examples.

Chef Donald Link has shown one successful route, opening four very different restaurants with his co-chefs and business partners within the same close radius downtown. In fact, Butcher, the Link Restaurant Group’s deli/sandwich shop/small plates bar, is expected to debut an actual physical expansion this week, after taking over the adjacent address, to triple in size.

Chef John Besh seems to have mastered a similar expansion recipe, often partnering with up-and-coming chefs to create each new restaurant’s own identity. His latest project, Pizza Domenica, officially opened Thursday with a spin-off approach, distilling some of the most popular components of downtown’s Domenica and bringing them Uptown. Pizza Domenica focuses on pizzas from a wood-fire oven and antipasti dishes like whole-roasted cauliflower, crudo and salumi plates. It will be run by Besh’s chef and partner at Domenica, Alon Shaya.

A bolder example of how ambitious chefs can grow is Square Root, which opened Wednesday and reflects a bet by chef Phillip Lopez and business partner Maximilian Ortiz that New Orleans will be willing to dine by a different set of rules.

The two run the Warehouse District restaurant Root, where since 2011 they have served an intensely modern menu worked through high-tech kitchen tools and artful compositions. For Square Root, they’re applying similar culinary principles to a tasting-menu-only restaurant format, one that trades some of the familiar flexibility of conventional restaurants for a different sort of dining experience.

With just 16 seats, each customer here has a ringside perch to the open kitchen at Square Root, which serves a 12- to 15-course meal each night at a set price of $150 (the price includes tax and tip, but not drinks). There are only two seatings per night for dinners that promise a highly orchestrated experience.

“It’s for people who aren’t afraid to be experimental, to put it in the chef’s hands and say, ‘here, you navigate,’” said Lopez. “It’s totally different but so was Root, and that was a gamble. Opening any restaurant is risky.”

Restaurants following the tasting-menu-only model have become high-profile fixtures in New York and other cities, where they have attracted prestigious Michelin stars but also sometimes complaints about the demands the approach puts on customers. For instance, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells observed in a 2012 essay that while these restaurants have the potential to deliver “a succession of delights,” in some cases “the courses blur, the palate flags and the check stings.”

Though it has yet to serve its first meal, Square Root’s highly-regimented approach (as detailed in a lengthy Q&A page on the restaurant’s website) makes clear this is not a place to just drop by on a whim, or to be picky about what you’d like for dinner.

Lopez said he and his business investors took a delibrate path to this format and also considered casual options and other ideas for their second restaurant.

Ultimately, he said, the building they found at the peninsula-like corner of Magazine and Felicity streets helped dictate Square Root. Small but lined with high windows, he said the former antiques store seemed the right place for immersive and intimate dinners while also planting a highly visible flag for what the chef believes can be a new direction for New Orleans cuisine.

“We want people to see this. What we do isn’t crazy. It’s not lab coats and beakers, but we are able to push the boundaries,” he said. “We’d love for this to be the think tank for the next ventures we do.”

Still, the chef acknowledges that Square Root’s format could change to a more conventional restaurant experience in the future, depending on how New Orleans responds.

“We’ve built that flexibility into it, you have to,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll start at the top right out of the gate and see where it goes.”

For now, Square Root also has another option for the curious but skeptical. The second floor lounge, dubbed Root Squared, serves charcuterie and cheese plates, cocktails and wines from a 3,000-bottle collection. And it does not require, or accept, reservations.