Chefs are busy finding specialty suppliers for everything from eggs to herbs these days. But Phillip Lopez foraged for something a little different before opening Root in the Warehouse District. He needed 50 empty cigar boxes, just for starters.
They are used with his scallops, which he crusts with atomized chorizo, sears and rests in one of the cigar boxes before hitting them with a waft of smoke from a Cohiba cigar. When the waiter opens the box at the table, the distinct wet-leathery aroma of tobacco rises in a cloud.
The smoke's faint essence lingers over the sweet-tasting scallops, and the novelty of the dish makes a lasting impression — as the chef no doubt intended. Root is refreshingly different, and even if it can seem provocative or a touch gimmicky, it's fun. The edgy approach is undercut by a playfulness that makes it more food geeky than food snobby.
It also seemed to come out of nowhere. In November, Lopez and business partner Maximilian Ortiz opened the restaurant, their first, in the space Feast had vacated a few months earlier. They quickly cooked up a place where highly conceptual dishes relying on specialized kitchen technology (dehydrators, sous vide cookers) share the card with others based on deep-running traditions from around the globe.
The same kitchen that spins foie gras into cotton candy produces a long roster of charcuterie and pickles, including everything from leeks to strawberries. Then there's a thick, perfectly cooked chunk of lemonfish with udon noodles fashioned in part from bonito flakes. The Chinese-style steamed buns wrapped around duck and herbs are made black with otherwise undetectable squid ink, and the manchego foam over fried oysters is almost too ephemeral to handle but draws you in nose first to try.
Desserts are just as dramatic, and maybe more so. Milk is ladled over a bowl of house-made cocoa puffs, a peppermint patty and ice cream, or it's made into foam and roped around sweet corn flan.
Root is located in a very old warehouse with exposed timbers and weathered brick, and that's about the end of its obvious New Orleans reference points. The design is unambiguously modern, with furnishings that could have come from a Stanley Kubrick set. Waiters sometimes seem a little breathless as they explain the menu, but you can hardly blame them. There's a lot here, and everything has some twist or detail worth explaining.
When Root is hopping, there's an infectious energy, and this can last until the wee hours. Drop by after midnight on the weekends, and the bar is full of sous chefs from around town digging into plates of lobster lasagna, lamb sausage and roasted marrow bones. Root feels very much of the moment, even if that's not a moment we see happening in New Orleans too often.