By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Only out of such a ridiculous haze of philosophizing could come a dish as bad as tofu pot pie with winter vegetables and pomegranate syrup, a horrible idea made worse because the vegetables thrown in to bulk out the filling weren't cooked through, while the tofu had the consistency of little cubes of kitchen sponge. This mess was covered by a pastry cap, baked, then laced with bittersweet, flowery pomegranate syrup. The combination of flavors was so clumsy that I had to believe no one in the kitchen had ever tasted a pomegranate before conceiving of the dish, and then somehow they'd continued in their ignorance by never once tasting the result of their own culinary Frankenstein-ism. Only out of such a counterintuitive tangle could come a line banging out ahi tuna tartare, thinking itself clever by serving it dusted with Black Sea salt, alongside pappadum. In addition to being nothing more than a copy of a copy of an app that was already played out long before Root Down was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, the ahi was a wreck because Black Sea salt is like uranium: rare and highly unstable. It tastes, more than anything, of fish — of thousands of years of dead fish, preserved in salt. So in effect, the kitchen was adding the flavor of ancient dead fish to a plate of...fish.
At Sunday brunch on the patio, I drank fresh-pressed orange juice and water that I was told was purified on the premises. Reverse osmosis. Lots of heavy science. I only wish someone had also thought to tell the cook how to make a proper omelet before throwing him onto the line and having him make mine: a crab and bacon version, lopsided, undercooked and oozing grill oil like pale gold blood. And yet that same morning, I got a side of pancakes that were, inexplicably, some of the best pancakes I've ever had — made with almond flour and served with a shot glass of agave-spiked syrup and a sprinkling of sliced almonds on top.
Monday dinner: scallop appetizer with fried plantains, miso whipped cream and apple-pickled ginger slaw; and a Long Farm pork chop, thick-cut, with Irish cheddar polenta and a tomato-fennel sofrito. Sounded good on paper. But what I got was old scallops with a distinctly fishy, tinny aftertaste, served over burnt, flavorless plantains with hot, curdled mayonnaise. The pork chop was nice and thick, showing excellent quadrillage from the grill, but it was sitting on an un-wiped plate, mounted on an already stiffened ring of tasteless polenta and topped with an ugly mess of whole stewed tomatoes with hard knots of untrimmed stem and big whacks of fennel. It wasn't a sofrito. It wasn't even in the same gastronomic family. Just ugly and dumb and lazy as hell — pure proof of a line either coasting on its own early press or unforgivably inattentive to the basic details of cooking.
I tried more. The beet custard — whipped light and fluffy, served hot, with melting goat cheese and bitter greens — was delicious even though it sounded like it ought to be terrible. But the carrot soup, which had sounded delicious, had about twelve too many ingredients and seven too many hands involved in its creation. I had vegetarian sliders that tasted like cheap takeout egg rolls run through a blender and deep-fried. I had mussels done in a muddled Thai/Vietnamese/French style that were decent, but certainly no better than those served at ten other places in the city that do mussels really well.
And so it went — three bad ideas for every good one, two catastrophic failures for each marginal success — until my image of Root Down was one of awful juxtaposition. Of me standing, in the middle of the dining room, in two places at once: in a beautiful restaurant with all the potential in the world, but looking at a smoking, wild-eyed, philosophical wreck of a galley lost in the tangle of its own concept, strangling on the very freedom it purported to embrace.
I've encountered schizophrenic kitchens before, ones where two competing influences — say, French and Japanese — drove the cooks a little crazy. I've encountered totally OCD crews, manic-depressive chefs who cooked with flaming genius until one little thing went wrong and brought the whole show to a crashing halt. But Root Down's is the first flat-out delusional galley I've ever run across. What they're doing makes absolutely no rational sense, yet no one on the inside seems to have any idea that anything is wrong.
There's a reason why kitchens do not work like communes, why they flourish under the dictatorial leadership of a single vision, executed by a single hand. Kitchens are run that way so that no one puts pomegranate on the tofu, so that menus don't read like bad jokes before the food ever makes it to the table.
They are run that way so they don't turn out like Root Down's.