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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Peche Seafood Grill

So two good friends of mine are in town and were looking for a good “last night in town” dinner. One is a former resident of New Orleans, so the pressure was on… especially when we sat down to dinner and they said “Order for us.” Luckily for me, we were at Donald Link’s Peche. Honestly over the course of several visits, I’ve always been impressed with both their service and how delicious their food is. Chef Ryan Prewitt continues to serve some of the best seafood in town. The daily menu emphasizes the freshness of the seafood and his practical and light approach to cooking it. Yes, you can get seafood here in New Orleans that’s not deep-fried.

It’s absurd to me that I’ve never written about this place, so here we go:

We kicked things off with a dozen oysters on the half shell from Hopedale, Louisiana. (Yes, Peche will tell you exactly where their oysters are from. The night’s other oyster option was from Dauphin Island, Alabama.) Cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce, crackers. Classic.

photo 1We also ordered smoked tuna dip, which one of my friends loved so much that we did a second round of it. I always recommend their crudo of the day—In this case, it was tuna with LA navel orange and pecans, vinaigrette, and black pepper. That disappeared quite quickly.

Added to that some royal red shrimp, grilled with garlic and butter. If you’ve never had royal reds before, you have to try them. They have a great color, a natural saltiness. and a delicate texture. And last but not least, some beautiful stone crab claws, steamed with Meyer lemon butter.

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For our main course, we split their signature grilled whole redfish with salsa verde, a dish that’s won countless (and deserved) accolades. Of course we needed sides, so we got some of the best brabant potatoes in town, fried brussel sprouts with chili vinegar, and white beans stewed with bacon. Washed the meal down with a few pitchers of Southern Pecan and called it a night? Nope.

photo 3We wrapped up our meal with pastry chef Rhonda Ruckman’s key lime pie with buttermilk chantilly. Peche’s desserts, like sister restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon, are always refreshingly simple. This was no exception: Bright and satisfying.

Peche Seafood Grill

800 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70130

504-522-1744

Monday – Thursday: 11am – 10pm

Friday – Saturday: 11am – 11pm

Sunday: Closed

Bayona

Tara and I have this tradition—not going to count the years—that each takes the other out to a celebratory meal for their birthday.  We usually do dinners, but she decided for this birthday she wanted a long, leisurely lunch with a couple of drinks. Naturally. We settled on Chef Susan Spicer’s Bayona, initially considering a NOLA Goes Pink meal but changed our mind when we realized a) they didn’t serve it for lunch, b) it was only two courses, and c) the dishes are built for health and nutrition. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but we were looking for something a bit different. Besides, in her words: “Who says you can’t have healthy boobs by eating ducks and butter?”

We stuck with Bayona and realized when we got there that their Saturday lunch is a light lunch made up of three small-plate courses. We remedied this by ordering an extra three plates to share for Our Invisible Friend. (Let’s call her “Jacque.”) Our server was impressed by this improvisation: “Nice. She eats. A real woman.”

Naturally we took advantage of Bayona’s cocktail menu and wine list. (I’m not going to bore you with a list of all we drank.) But since the meal was a celebration, we started with sparkling wine. 2010 Domaine de la Manarine Cotes du Rhone. Lady’s choice.

The rosiest rosé I’ve ever seen.

The cream of garlic soup is one of the mainstays on the Bayona menu. Creamy and rich but mostly garlicky. So if you’re a garlic lover or a lover of “cream of” soups, definitely get a cup.

The Bayona Salad is their house salad. Nothing particularly exciting, just proof that a simple bowl of mixed greens, good cheese (Parmigiana Reggiano or Great Hill Blue), and vinaigrette can be all you need.

One conspicuous absence from the menu was sadly the veal sweetbreads. They’re Chef Spicer’s signature, usually available appetizer-size and entrée-size. On the bright side, now I have an excuse to go back. I did try the fried rabbit liver salad, which came with beets both red and yellow, arugula, and balsamic vinaigrette. Tara and I were musing over the fact that most people who don’t like certain ingredients (beets, brussel sprouts, etc) have just never had them properly prepared.

An aside on Chef Spicer: She was at the restaurant, and we admire how she’s the kind of chef who genuinely seems to love being in her kitchen. Many chefs of her caliber and success tend to end up enjoying their celebrity with TV and other public appearances. (There is nothing wrong with this.) But she was also at Mondo when we dined there last month. When she does enter her dining room, it always seems to be in an inconspicuous “I’m checking to see that service is going well.” There’s no grand entrance or look-at-me, tell-me-how-awesome-my-food-is fanfare. Anyway, it’s awesome that her passion for cooking overrides the perks and benefits of being a successful chef. She is a very cool lady.

Smoked salmon, like actual meaty smoky salmon, not the lox you buy in a deli, potato pancakes, horseradish sour cream, and choucroute made an appearance also.

A skewer of swordfish and scallop on a bed of lentils and a drizzle of pesto was really good. It’s the kind of dish where I like all ingredients involved, so I’m inherently biased. It’s nice to see lentils not cooked into mush. One of the two chunks of swordfish was a bit dry, but that’s usually a risk in cooking the fish. The other was cooked perfectly, as was the scallop, seared on the outside and medium rare inside.

For obvious reasons, I’m particular with pasta but I did enjoy the fettucine with shrimp, andouille, roast tomato and garlic cream sauce. That combination of ingredients is obviously not a traditional Italian one, but the al dente of the pasta and the homemade andouille showed a mastery of Italian technique with the same use of local ingredients that Italians pride themselves on.

And the main reason Tara and I chose lunch at Bayona: Smoked duck and peanut-cashew butter with hot pepper jelly.

Speaking of ingredients I love…

 The dish is a play on childhood favorite peanut butter and jelly with our favorite protein mixed in. It’s usually served as a sandwich but was baked into a puff pastry this time. Very rich. Full of protein. It was garnished with celery leaves, a clever reminder of another grade school memory: Celery sticks dipped in peanut butter. I wouldn’t have minded a little acid, but if you’re going to be decadent, why not? We had one each, figuring sharing might be a problem.

Finish strong…

For dessert we had chocolate profiteroles, pear slices, caramel ice cream, and butter crunch toffee. This was just a great mix of different levels of sweetness and textures. The photo looks a hot mess – my fault – but I promise the dish looked and tasted delicious in reality.

430 Dauphine St.
New Orleans LA 70112
504.525.4455
Lunch: Wednesday – Saturday
Dinner: Monday – Saturday
http://www.bayona.com