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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La Petite Grocery

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

Blue Crab Beignets, photo courtesy of Blake Killian, instagram @blakemakes

So the other night I made a long overdue return to La Petite Grocery. LPG is helmed by Chef Justin Devillier, who worked in a other New Orleans kitchens before ascending the ranks of LPG and, after Hurricane Katrina, purchasing ownership of the restaurant with his wife and general manager, Mia. Although the menu changes seasonally, Chef Devillier’s talent for flavorful, technique-savvy yet non-fussy cuisine is consistent. Here’s a recap of my dinner:

Blue Crab Beignets, like most of his dishes, reflect Chef Devillier’s love of seafood and attention to detail. They’re served with a pleasant malt vinegar aioli (read: actual whisked aioli, not just mayonnaise with garlic chopped into it) and are pretty addictive.

Steak Tartare is prepared in the classic French style with the addition of ghost pepper bowfin caviar on top and crème fraiche on the side, a nice touch which allows the diner to control the spicy and creamy by simply pushing them away with knife and fork. For the record, I finished everything. Also, ghost pepper caviar seems a bit trendy these days. In less capable hands, it overpowers every other flavor in a dish, aka a mess. This is the correct way to use it.

The restaurant often serves an assortment of chilled seafood from the gulf with a mainstay side item of pickled quail eggs. (Try those, they’re great.) But one special of this particular evening was a Crudo of Wild Striped Bass dressed with celery, pickle brine, and fresh dill. I could probably eat an entire bass prepared this way. Simple. Delicious. Not fussy.

The pasta special was Lobster Roe Fettuccine, meaning the roe had been kneaded into the pasta itself—LPG handmakes all of its pasta in-house. This not only tasted good –How could it not?– but looked especially nice, topped with Florida bottarga, red Russian cabbage, and a garnish of beautiful, little onion flowers.

I had one entrée, which was recommended. And I’m glad it was recommended because I’d never have ordered it otherwise. Chicken Breast. Unless it’s a restaurant’s specialty, I almost never order chicken in restaurants. Safe. Boring. Something I could cook at home. This menu item is a winter dish that’s lasted into spring because it’s spectacular. The breast is roasted to juicy, fork-tender perfection. No one needs to sous-vide anything. The skin is crispy with the fat practically rendered off. I love fried chicken as much of the next person, but this is an argument in favor of roasting being a debatably superior and certainly more difficult technique. Also there was fluffy, airy cornbread dressing which tasted (bear with me) like the best corndog you’ve ever had. And fried sage and tasso jus finish off the dish. I’ve never seen a more elegant plate of poultry and stuffing. I’m done now.

Dessert was Cane Cream Puffs with candied peanuts and chocolate syrup. Simple, not too sweet. Basically a really good sundae and a nice way to finish a great meal. LPG has a nice wine list also –I sipped on an easy Vietti Barbera D’Asti through dinner– and makes killer Manhattans.

If I haven’t convinced you, Chef Devillier is a repeat nominee for the James Beard award for Best Chef South. I expect great things in the future. Wish him luck this year, and go try the place. You can thank me later.

La Petite Grocery

4238 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70115

504-891-3377

Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday 11:30-2:30
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday 5:30-9:30
Friday-Saturday 5:30 – 10:30
Sunday Brunch 10:30-2:30

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