It took me a couple months to finally find my way to Roots Bistro, but I think my timing was actually pretty perfect. Executive chef German Mosquera has transformed the concept into a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly, farm-to-table restaurant, so instead of catching the end of beet season I found a feast of fresh summer crops.
No offense to beets, but I was ready for it.
The Roots interiors haven't changed much since the restaurant was Cafe Moustache (or even SoVino), but replacing the televisions over the bar with chalkboards touting the daily specials and adding beautiful, table-clothless wooden tables hits just the right tone of casual class without feeling overly proper.
If the meal was uneven, it also showed enormous promise. There's no question that Mosquera knows how to make fresh veggies work.
The menu is centered around small vegetable/grain plates from roasted baby bok choy to arugula risotto, with many of the plates also offered on top of a thin crust-pizza. Sticking with the small plates, I started with the smoked sweet corn. For a vegetable that's so associated with grilling, I thought it could have used a little more smoke flavor and although the mix of spices and cilantro dusted on top added a mild, earthy heat, it couldn't disguise that the corn was a bit dry and decidedly not juicy.
I couldn't help but compare it unfavorably to the flash-grilled version at Katsuya.
On the other hand, a warm mixed bean salad — combined string beans, bean sprouts and thin slices of tofu in a light peach vinaigrette — was a simple winner with a beautiful texture and just a touch of sweetness to make it interesting.
The roasted red potatoes were equally impressive. Cut into quarters, the potatoes were soaked in a sweet red wine glaze with lemon and basil. The glaze was so intense that it managed to cut through the density of the potato and really shine, successfully making potatoes both interesting and palatable without the addition of cheese and/or butter. That's pretty special.
Next came the squash bacon pizza. Served on an above-average thin crust served with just a hint of char, the pizza has a base of a thin, almost unnoticeable tomato sauce plus a light coat of melted mozzarella. The squash bacon pizza also adds chunks of red potato and thin slices of green squash, plus plenty of cilantro. I politely mentioned to my waiter that they forgot the bacon, and he let me know that the squash was actually cooked in a way to bring out a crispy texture and seasoned to give it a savory essence to resemble bacon.
I will admit that the squash treatment was very tasty, and that it did have a satisfying crunch and essence. But you know what? It's still not bacon.
Like Sorrel, which also focuses on fresh market ingredients and changes the menu daily, the plates at Roots can be a bit rough around the edges.
Actually in the small plates menu the dish is referred to as squash "bacon," but somehow I missed that. Once I adjusted my expectations, there was a lot to like about my new bacon-less pizza, and the fresh, light veggie flavors were actually very appealing. What actually did not work as a topping was the red potato. It was just to heavy, and weighed down all the other light ingredients, even the crust.
But my adventures in squash weren't quite over. Mosquera served up Gulf lump crab over a bed of "squashta" — that's green and yellow squash compressed and shaped into pasta-like strings. Squash-bacon (squakin?) might be a stretch but squashta really works. The strands made a great foil for the crab, bringing out its savory tones without weighing it down. I'm so accustomed to crab being served with rich butter or breading that it was almost like a re-introduction to the protein, coming off more tangy and less sweet than I remembered.
I was less impressed with a trio of lamb fajita steak bites, which were overwhemed by the porcini mushrooms they were served on and somewhat bland. A crispy duck egg dish found another use for squash — pureed with scallop and served au gratin. The flavor was delicious, especially when combined with the bright green kale pudding surrounding it on the plate, but the texture was too runny to really enjoy, and the duck egg on top went beyond crispy to unpleasantly brittle, creating a visual and textural disparity.
In the desserts, as well, there were hits and misses. A mimolette cheese creme brulee meshed the traditionally sweet flavor while cutting the richness by adding a hint of salty tang — delicious. On the other hand, a vegan doughnut made with yeast more closely resembled a soft bagel in texture and flavor. And, while I have nothing against bagels, adding a peach glaze doesn't really do anything to improve them.
If the meal was uneven, it also showed enormous promise. There's no question that Mosquera knows how to make fresh veggies work, and the ambitious ways in which he integrates them throughout the menu succeed more often than they fail.
Like Sorrel, which also focuses on fresh market ingredients and changes the menu daily, the plates at Roots can be a bit rough around the edges. But in the end, I think any restaurant that can make eating my vegetables this exciting is worth it.