Square Root

SPOILER ALERT: Square Root’s entire opening menu revealed, dissected.

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Sixteen seats. Open kitchen. Square plate settings. Chef Philip Lopez and GM Maximilian Ortiz’s Square Root is a beautiful space inside what was once a bakery for the Irish and Italian catholic communities and was most recently a furniture store. Their first restaurant, “Root,” opened in 2011, and yes, sometimes the sequel is better than the original. The restaurant clearly takes its inspiration from the late El Bulli but at a mere fraction of the price.

Upstairs houses “Root Squared,” a bar that serves small plates and functions as an excellent waiting/pre-game area as well as a lounge for once you finish your dinner.

You have to give a credit card to hold your reservation, but the charge includes tax and tip. Beverage service is separate (with no gratuity included). Your beverage service is a pairing menu of wines, fine wines, cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, or “mixed drinks,” which means a combo of wines and cocktails. Should you choose either wine tasting option, you end up drinking (in total) the equivalent of a bottle of wine. I settled on the mix pairing because I enjoy both wines and cocktails.

Seating is done four times a night in staggered waves. If you’re anyone but the first seating, you get to see several meals in progress. The open kitchen brings every dish to life in front of you. So you get to see a taste of things to come (the future), other diners enjoying courses you’ve already had (the past), and your own meal (the present). As an alum of an open kitchen, I am so impressed because the chef and his team are literally cooking in the middle of a circle, um, SQUARE, of diners.

I don’t usually recommend going to a restaurant the first night. Having worked service industry in several capacities, I know how many things can go wrong at the beginning. I even told a cook at one point, “I can slow down if you want to serve me and the other two [diners seated at the same time as me] all together.”

His response: “We need the practice.”

Practice makes perfect, and it’s showing this team has practiced a lot.

Guess what this is. I'll tell you later.

Guess what this is. I’ll tell you later.

The menu was ~16 courses with a variable number of pairings. (Also, all the plates and bowls are different for each course. They must have at least 50 different sets to accommodate future dishes.) Sit down and get comfortable. This recap will take a while.

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The meal starts off with an unapologetic blast of flavor.  Lobster Mousse atop a “Lobster Chicarron” (like an elevated Asian prawn cracker) topped with tarragon caviar. Way more salt and flavor than I’d expect for a first dish. Definitely not a mild amuse bouche. A surprising amount of flavors, textures, and temperatures kick in motion a meal that will continue to provide those and more surprises. Pairing: Summer Shandy.

Nduja Spread on flatbread cracker is up next. Clearly a throwback to Root’s housemade sausage program. Pumpkin seeds garnish it.

The next dish is a play on “Southern Fried Chicken,” inspired by Chef Kelly English, a southern picnic, and Tennessee? Lots of great flavor and texture but I was not impressed with the surprisingly hard cracker(?) on which everything else balanced.

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Oysters, Charred Bone Marrow Tartare, blood orange mignonette, buttermilk horseradish “ice.” Beautiful sight and blend of flavors and textures. Yes, I tasted the seaweed underneath the shell. Pairing: An exceptionally smooth Sake I can’t pronounce but that star sommelier Liz Dowty can.

Soup of Seared Potato, Potato Crisp, Truffle-Pickled Peaches, Smoked Caviar, and Vermouth Gelee in a creamy but light broth. This is also the first course to include a utensil! One note: More liquid would make it easier to spoon the solid components. Pairing: Carpano Bianco Vermouth. (The savory/sweet contrast is brilliant.)

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Petrified Leafy Greens, toasted coriander lime spuma, pea puree, compressed cucumber, pickled seeds. A vegetarian dish? Now we’re somewhere in the east. The spuma calls to mind yogurt, and the cucumber and coriander do the rest.

PAUSE: Palate Cleanser CocktailGin, hibiscus, coriander, pink peppercorn. Stop reading. Stretch. We still have a ways to go.

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Tendon Two Ways: Pickled and Chicharron. Tabouleh. Radish gelee. Calabaza squash oil. Togarashi. Showing off how a protein can be insanely different based on prep. More international flavor blending. Pairing: Greek wine that especially complimented the oil.

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“Faux Gras.” Umebashi? Strawberries made into an amazing (dipping-dots-like) dish. A thin marble rye crouton for texture. And yes, there is a bit of actual foie gras in it. Is anything more French than foie gras and cognac? Pairing: Dessert wine from the cognac region of France, with nice thornbush/almond notes. This cold dish and cold drink bring a rush of energy.

How they infuse their broth

How they infuse their mushroom stock

Duck Breast seared in black pepper and allspice. Duck Tortellini with fennel fronds in the pasta dough. Mushroom stock and dashi infused with aromatics laboratory-style. Japan! (All things I love, by the way.) A fork, knife, and spoon. Multiple utensils! Pairing: Lambrusco

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PAUSE. Intermezzo of Compressed Granny Apples and Passion Fruit Granita, microgreens, and a hint of lemon juice and zest.

Now we’re in the Mediterranean. Honey-poached Sablefish. Dates. Sunchoke. Roast chutney. More honey to finish. Pairing: Suave of Gargano-Trebbiano.

A dish inspired by Chef Lopez’s mother: Chilaquiles with sous-vide Lobster finished in butter, citrus and coriander. Lobster Mole. The meat was a tad chewy so perhaps a lean lobster, but every other component on the plate was fantastic. “When I was growing up, we couldn’t afford lobster,” he says with a smile. Pairing: Grüner Veltliner.

Roasted Pheasant Roulade, medium rare. Johnny Rock Cake. (Dehydrated) Corn Kernels? Shaved truffle. A corn velouté to finish. A bird-and-corn inspired dish. I hope next time they serve Cornish hen to complete the wordplay. Pairing: Chenin Blanc with sweet corn notes. Of course.

Wagyu Beef covered in miso and seared. Bone marrow emulsion. Iced-blanched squash. Hazelnut. Balsamic vinegar drizzle. Made for the meat lover. Served on dishes made out of burnt wood, in a Japanese method. And the wood came from Root. Back to Japan! Pairing: Green Flash West Coast IPA.

PAUSE: Now that those courses are done, the silverware is replaced with gold spoons for the desserts. Chef Lopez is a rare type who can do pastry as well.

Granny Smith Apple Sorbet. More Granny Smith apples dehydrated, powdered, and baked into meringue. On a bed of puffy grains. Tarragon. In a weird/good way, this reminded me of Apple Jacks cereal from childhood. Pairing: Basque Region Cider.

That egg picture up top? Did you guess what it was? I used to spherify ACE juice into an  “yolk,” place it in the middle of banana yogurt, sprinkle raw sugar around, brûlée the sugar, and call it a “fried egg” dessert. I thought I was clever…

Chef Lopez has upped the ante by serving an “Incredible, Edible Egg,” laid no doubt by the golden goose that gave those dessert spoons the Midas Touch. These are brought out in six-pack egg cartons. The egg is then placed atop candied almonds. Inside the egg is a cold, caramel-like toasted-egg-yolk curd. The shell is cracked in front of you, and it’s made of invert sugar (to withstand NOLA’s humidity). The “shell” is edible. The only remotely minor flaw is the one other component on top. Not sure what it was, but it was sticky and chewy and definitely not for anyone with sensitive teeth or dentures. Pairing: Valdez Amontillado Sherry.

BOOM.

BOOM.

Some people might balk at the price ($150 per person) but for 12-16 courses, that is a steal. A diner who’s never worked in a restaurant might think ingredients make a meal expensive. (For the record, the ingredients alone would be worth the price tag.) But it’s the time and effort that a kitchen puts into dishes that make them expensive. Every dish could have its ingredients chopped in half (size wise or variety wise) and still be delicious. If you have the money to spend on a long, leisurely dinner, this is a steal.

The excellent service is a bonus. The staff was running on adrenaline yet pleasant, making small talk with customers and learning their names. More importantly, should you have any dining restrictions, the staff will accommodate them.

Randomly the soundtrack is just as eclectic as the menu, and even the upstairs bathroom is engineered to impress. You literally cannot run out of toilet paper. If you go, you’ll see what I mean.

I was hesitant and skeptical. Square Root is an experience and, nitpicking aside, the most impressive opening I’ve ever seen a restaurant do. Easily one of the top five best fine dining meals I’ve had in New Orleans. Thanks for reading ‘til the end.

Square Root

1800 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-309-7800

Tuesday – Saturday: 6:15pm to 8:45pm

BY RESERVATION ONLY

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Galatoire’s Reveillon!

Reveillon is one of New Orleans’s oldest Christmas traditions. Decided to spend it at Galatoire’s this year. Here’s the course-by-course rundown!

Escargot Yvonne: Escargot (i.e. snails) cooked with the usual garlic and butter to a nice soft but pleasantly chewy texture. Artichoke hearts and white button mushrooms to add some volume. And in a nice touch, some sliced grape tomatoes to brighten the dish with both color and acid.

Country Lentil Soup: A surprisingly light soup that really hit the spot. There was duck meat in it. Supposedly there was foie gras in it also, but I didn’t taste or see any.

Fried Oyster Clemeanceau: Another French Quarter classic. There was a piece of shell in my dish, but the cooked-till-they-melt peas, Brabant Potatoes, and of course, more mushrooms more than made up for it.

Sampled all three desserts: Custard Cup needs to either be less like scrambled eggs or sweeter to emphasize that it’s a dessert. Bread Pudding was too dry and chewy, but the caramel sauce was perfect. Lemon Tart was the winner – No criticisms with it at all.
In summary, Galatoire’s continues to be a quarter establishment. The plates are coated in butter when you finish eating them, but that’s just classic French. Also had cocktails throughout the meal: Bourbon Milk Punch with the first course, Poinsetta with the soup, and French 75 with the oysters. Decided to skip the Café Brulot for dessert.

Reveillon menu is available until December 24. Gents, Gal’s requires a jacket at dinner service and all day on Sunday.

Galatoire’s Restaurant

209 Bourbon Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

(504) 525-2021

Sunday: 12 p.m – 10 p.m.

Tuesday – Saturday: 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.

Vermilion

If you ever find yourself on in Old Town, Alexandria, make sure to stop by this King Street townhouse for a meal. The dishes are plated carefully but not pretentiously. The service is soft-spoken but friendly. And executive chef William Morris is crafting some great dishes that are creative but also satisfying.

My meal at Vermilion started with an amuse bouche of salmon tartare. Already off to a good start. A server brought warm, fresh bread to the table. Solid menu selection. Let’s start with the appetizers, which were generously sized:

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Even prettier in reality

Let’s start with the Charred Octopus. It came with garlic confit purée, shisho, la ratte potato, and a ham broth that, had I a spoon, I would’ve eaten like a soup. The octopus was wonderfully cooked, meaty and satisfying and not the least bit chewy. The garlic and shiso balanced out the char. A really nice preparation of a protein that, in the continental states, is usually limited to sushi.

The Beet & Apple Salad with ricotta was simple as it read but beautifully prepared. Roasted Path Valley beets, honey crisp apples, some thinly sliced shallots… Perfect transition between summer and fall.

Up next, Shrimp & Grits, something I rarely order outside the Deep South, but this genuinely surprised me with how good it was. Shrimp roasted, head-on, creamy grits, chorizo from Spain, roasted red peppers. Familiar, American textures with Mediterranean flavors.

Veal Sweetbreads tend to be a staple at fine dining restaurants. Served fried, as per usual, but rather than drenched in sauce, these came on top of Path Valley carrot purée with braised baby carrots and a veal jus spiced with coriander. The sweetness of the carrots and the spicy in the broth brought out the sweetbreads’ flavor in a nice and refreshing way.

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Photo courtesy of Jewelyn Cosgrove

Entrée-time: Berkshire Pork, cooked to a nice medium. Hakurei turnips and sorghum to round out the savory and sweet flavors inherent to pork. Squash (I’m assuming also from Path Valley) pureed to contrast with crispy potato cakes. One tiny, easily correctible nuance in this: The pork was less seasoned than the other components, so they overwhelmed it a bit. But like I said, easily correctible.

I’m going to preface this dish by saying it’s made up of ingredients I love, so I will try to remain objective: Fields of Athenry Lamb, cooked medium rare. Panissa – Fried cubes of chick pea flour. Eggplant pureed with black garlic. Caramelized artichokes. Grilled green onions. Pomegranate seeds. I was a bit hesitant because of all the textures and intense flavors, but this came together beautifully. I felt like I was eating far, far away…. The Mediterranean, the southern part of it. This was a stark contrast to the delicate pork dish.

For dessert, the Goat Cheese Cheesecake was dense and satisfying. Bruleed figs, candied pistachio, and pistachio ice cream lent some sweetness and meaty, nutty flavor to go with all the cream. The Blackberry Crumb Cake had a similar setup: Apricots, candied almonds, and a sweet corn ice cream that I would happily consume by the pint. Strong finish to a stunning meal.

I tried a lot of purées, but I finished them all so I’m definitely not complaining. The proteins were all excellent, but it’s also nice to see that the vegetables were incredibly fresh and also cooked expertly. (A lesser restaurant would get proteins right but overcook or undercook vegetables.) Local ingredients. Superb dining experience. I know where I’m taking my parents next time we’re back in Old Town.

Vermilion Restaurant
1120 King St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 684-9669
Dinner: 5:30pm-10pm 
Lunch Monday, Wednesday-Friday: 11am-3pm 
Brunch Saturday and Sunday: 11am-2:30pm

I ate a lot this weekend.

Friday lunch: Shrimp Etouffee and Fried Chicken at Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. I actually went in for a quick salad bar visit, but the hostess convinced me to order a dish. It wasn’t motivated by “I was told to SELL this dish.” Rather, it was pure pride. “You have GOT to try our gulf shrimp special today.” The waitress who brought it was equally proud and excited: “Baby, this gon’ be the best etouffee and chicken you ever ate.” The etouffee had a generous amount of huge gulf shrimp and a slightly spicy sauce that enhanced the shrimp flavor and was thick but not heavy. Everyone claims to have the best friend chicken in town, but what I got was definitely top five.

610 Poydras Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 212-5656

Saturday dinner: Several courses with wine pairings at Le Meritage in Le Maison Dupuy.

  • Crispy Tuna Roll, dynamite sauce, sea salad. Despite being quickly deep fried, the roll was only lightly battered and the fish inside was still raw. I avoid deep-fried sushi like it’s my job, but this was quite good. The red pepper and mayo sauce was used sparingly and correctly. The seaweed in the salad added some nice salt and crunch.
  • Seared Sea Scallop, yellow curry, crispy shallot. The curry was very mild and didn’t hide the flavor of a well-cooked scallop. The shallots on top gave a nice texture change. I like all the ingredients, so naturally I loved the dish.
  • Foie Gras Torchon, brioche, port reduction. Rich, rich, rich. But no complaints here.
  • Duck Two Ways, fig compote, foie gras, butter potatoes. Seared breast and confit of dark meat. Really three ways if you count the slice of duck foie gras. I love duck.
  • Grilled Venison Loin, corn and black bean salad, chimichurri. A nice dish that didn’t mask the game flavor of the meat and countered it with a nice, carby salad and a herby, fresh sauce.
  • Peanut Butter Pave, berries. Like a really good Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Thick but not overly sweet or buttery. Definitely tasted and felt healthy despite being dessert.

1001 Rue Toulouse
New Orleans, LA 70112
(504) 522-8800

Sunday late lunch: Paneed Veal and Crab Fried Rice at American Sector. I’m not a huge veal fan, but what isn’t good paneed (i.e. pounded to a uniform thickness and deep fried)? The crab fried rice had a hint of curry and lumps of crabmeat in it. Quite good.

945 Magazine Street
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 528-1940

Sunday dinner: Brisket Pho at Lost Love Lounge. The staff of this kitchen aren’t Vietnamese, but they make a great bowl of pho. A little too much star anise but otherwise a great bowl of soup for a cool night.

2529 Dauphine Street
New Orleans, LA 70117
(504) 949-2009

Guilty pleasure? Go spicy.

Anyone familiar with me knows I don’t believe in “diet” or “healthy” versions of food… unless you find they actually taste better to you than the original. (Not even “as good as” but better!) Fortunately for me, I love spicy food. So if you’re going to indulge in junk food or fast food, check if your favorite guilty pleasure has a spicy version.

Ounce for ounce, the spicy alternate always has fewer calories and less sodium, carbohydrates, and fat. (Let’s face it: Salt, sugar, and butter/lard are easy ways to add flavor. Spice is a guilt-free way.)  This leaves more room for protein and fiber. As an added bonus, all that capsaicin may curb your appetite or at least compel you to eat slower. The foods still might not be healthy, but at least you’ll eat them in a healthier way.

Just as an example, here’s some nutritional info from probably my favorite guilty pleasure.

Love dat chicken!Photo courtesy of Popeyes

Mild Chicken Thigh Spicy Chicken Thigh
Calories

280

260

Sodium (mg)

640

460

Fat (g)

21

18

Protein (g)

14

14

Carbs (g)

8

7

Fiber (g)

1

1