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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NOWFE Vintners Dinner at Restaurant August

First course: Two Run Farms Lamb Tartare, sweet pea chermoula, whipped burrata, spiced lavash. Chef Michael Gulotta jump-started the meal with some really nice, complex Middle Eastern flavors presented in a very clean, fresh way. Fresh peas, oregano, and cilantro really brightened the whole dish. Maybe a hint of plum (or hoisin?) too. There was a vegan at my table and – no joke – she was the first to finish this dish. And she did so proudly.

Pairing: Val de Mer, Crémant de Bourgogne, Brut Nature Rosé, France, NV

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Second course: Pansotti of roasted purple and golden Covey Rise Beets, foie gras crème, beurre blanc, slightest hint of coffee. This was an expert restraint on what, in clumsier hands, would have been an overly heavy pasta dish. The rich flavor of the foie was elevated by giving it an almost airy texture. I had to pause myself and eat slowly because I almost inhaled this dish in a minute or less.

Pairing: Chardonnay, Domaine Charles Audoin, Marsannay-la-Côte, Burgundy, France, 2011

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Third course: Green-garlic-crusted Marrow Bone, crawfish salad, blood orange, picholine olive puree, focaccia. Gotta begin by saying this was maybe the most perfectly chopped bone marrow I’ve ever seen. I know that sounds funny, but I’m not exaggerating. Despite bone marrow being so deliciously fatty, the dish was a great balance: The richness of the marrow, the slight briny flavor of the olive and some capers, the sweetness of crawfish, acid from the blood orange. I could go on and on. The focaccia was provided by Lisa White, the pastry chef of Domenica. It was grilled up and perfect for spreading with the marrow.

Pairing: Pinot Noir, Domaine Charles Audoin, Marsannay, Côtes-de-Nuits, Burgundy France, 2009

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Fourth course: Crepinette of Chappapeela Farms Duckling Breast, popcorn rice boudin of leg, whole green onion, grilled fava beans. A perfectly cooked duck breast, better than most steaks. This was a decent sized dish but deceptively filling. Nice textures, great contrast of flavors. Like pretty much all the ingredients at August, this was sourced locally from a nearby, free-range duck farm. The flavor and texture really shines and is as close to hunted duck as you can get without actually hunting.

Pairing: Grenache/Mourvèdre/Cinsault/Vaccarèse, Féraud-Brunel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France, 2010

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Dessert course: Local Blueberry “Pavlova,” caramelized coconut, lime and blueberry sorbet. I believe I’ve had an iteration of this dessert by Pastry Chef Kelly Fields before, but I will never tire of eating it. Some meringues, some blueberry gelee. Classic dessert flavors elevated and refined without compromising the integrity and flavor of the ingredients—As with all of Chef Kelly’s desserts.

Pairing: Gros Manseng & Petite Manseng, Domaine du Clos Uroulat, Moelleux, Jurançon-Uroulat, France, 2006

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Better pics of most of the dishes available at Chef Gulotta’s instagram gallery. Wines provided by Martine’s Wines and paired by Sommelier Erin. I have nothing left to say other than that it was incredible. I am humbled and inspired by such culinary talent.

Restaurant August
301 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
(504) 299-9777
Dinner: 5:30pm-10pm
Lunch Monday-Friday: 11am-2pm

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

Mr. John’s Steak House

I think you can tell a lot about a restaurant by their bread. (Is it fresh? Warm? Baked in-house?) Mr. John’s serves garlic bread, the rare kind that’s more garlicky than buttery. These two ingredients go well with steak and are often applied too generously… but not here. This restraint set the tone for my meal.

Garlic and butter are the usual accompaniments to snails, but I had an appetizer that put the escargot with mushrooms, shallots, brandy, and (red) wine. The menu said they were served “in a puff pastry,” but the actual dish had four times the amount of escargot sitting next to the puff pastry as well. Entrée size appetizer. I’ve eaten snails many times in the ubiquitous French style and also with black beans in Chinese dim sum. Now that I’ve tried it in another preparation (and in such generous quantity) I think I understand the taste of the snail itself and I’m not sure it’s my favorite protein. That being said, the dish was very good. There was no effort to conceal the true flavor the snail, just to accompany it.

As for the main course, Mr. John’s signature is the New York Strip, but I ordered the Ribeye because it’s my favorite cut and I’m on a casual quest to find the best one in New Orleans. Salt. Coarse ground black pepper. Diced parsley. Butter, sizzling the first few minutes of the meal. Despite how hot the serving plate was, the steak was perfectly medium rare (unlike some competitors I won’t name). No sauce. Unapologetically rich. I had my ‘08 Caposaldo Chianti to help me along the way.

I almost went with the universal creamed spinach but had heard good things about the broccoli au gratin—five large florets baked under a heap of cheddar, the bits on the rim browned and crispy. Any kid who used to play with their food and submerge their broccoli trees in a lava eruption of cheese sauce would like this. It was more of a fat than a vegetable, but again wine is for cutting through that.

I forced myself to complete the meal with dessert, and I wasn’t expecting a grand finish. But both the waiters independently pushed the tiramisu, and this was one of the best ones I’ve had outside of Italy. The emphasis was correctly on the mascarpone (not cream cheese) rather than the espresso (not regular coffee) soaked ladyfingers. Yet the dish was not heavy. Don’t get me wrong, the serving was the size of a Rubik’s Cube, but an actual spoonful was surprisingly light. You could taste the cocoa, dusted on top into the shape of a fleur de lis, and also the liquor.

All in all a great meal and better than competitors at similar price. Some restaurants overcompensate for lackluster taste with huge portions, but quality and quantity are both served up at Mr. John’s.

2111 St. Charles Avenue

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-679-7697

Dinner Tuesday – Saturday

Lunch on Friday

http://www.mrjohnssteakhouse.com