I instantly loved Linger. It took me a lot longer to form an attachment to Justin Cucci's first restaurant, Root Down. The refitted garage in Highland opened in late 2007, touting a haute farm-to-table menu, rooftop produce and a long wait list for reservations. But while I was initially impressed with the design — complete with vintage telephones, old school photos and quirky modern artwork — and the contemporary cocktails, a couple of mediocre experiences in the dining room early on made me think of Root Down as little more than a happy-hour stop.
But I recently decided to give dinner there another chance and booked a patio table a few weeks ago.
As at Linger, a trio of efficient hosts clearly trained for crowd control greeted me at the door, leading me through Root Down's packed dining room and out onto the equally full terrace. My server was slow to stop by our table at first, but after finally taking our drink order she never faltered, and she had an easy confidence that suggested she's used to handling a full-to-capacity section on a regular basis.
Root Down's menu has even more vegetarian fare than Linger's — Cucci says he keeps the board at about 60 percent meatless items — and we started out with the seared Colombian arepas. The circles of masa had been stuffed with mozzarella and pan-fried, then drizzled with poblano and pistachio pesto, tart crema stung with achiote peppers and topped with fresh pico de gallo. They were much more successful than the mussels, which came swimming in a sweet red-curry broth that also held couscous. Or sort of held couscous: The bulbous grains had sunk to the bottom of the bowl and didn't add much to the dish, which desperately needed some kind of help, since the mussels themselves weren't very good. I wasn't sad to see the remnants of that one cleared away.
Despite the emphasis on produce, I couldn't resist ordering the beef tender for dinner — and when it showed up, I was glad I hadn't gone for the tofu. Cucci and his team can cook the hell out of a piece of meat: My beef was a perfect medium rare, crisp around the edges from the sear and silky inside. Served on a bed of sautéed red chard with soft potato galette and finely chopped mushrooms, the heavy dish was lightened by a sun-dried-tomato sauce and squirt of crème fraîche, making it perfect for a late summer evening on the deck.
The dish left a good taste in my mouth, as did the entire meal. Settling back in my chair and enjoying the view of downtown, I recognized that things are looking up at Root Down — and I have another restaurant to add to my regular dinner rotation.