I don't know where to begin. Should I start with the girl in the full-length (faux) fur over her sundress in the dining room — the one I'd pegged as a Russian mafia princess until I heard her speaking flawless English — or the beautiful people on the patio discussing their recent returns from San Francisco, Manhattan and London, driven home to Denver by the failing economy and sucking down bottomless mimosas to soothe their jangled nerves? Should I start with the menu that I first thought was some kind of clever joke, a parody menu meant to poke gentle, sophisticated fun at the PC excesses and militant locavore urges of so many foodies these days? Should I start with the kitchen — the wide-open, straight-up, short-order diner kitchen pouring billows of smoke and blast-furnace heat into the dining room? Or with the poor fuckers forced to labor in that chrome trench, sweating through their whites, banging out hideous world-cuisine fusions that would've shamed Tower or LaDou or Portale at their coke-fueled '80s freakiest?
No. I'm going to start with what was good about Root Down, because there actually was some good, even amid the terrible trend-humping mess of ridiculously bad ideas. I'm going to start with the good because that's the path to salvation for this restaurant, even if owner Justin Cucci and chef Ryan Leinonen already seem to be packing 'em in every night, making money hand over fist. In this world, there's being successful and there's being good. Being successful only makes you rich, but being good makes you immortal. Every man has to ask himself which he wants to be.
Root Down has an awesome space. It has what might be one of the best spaces in the city — one that dozens of serious restaurant guys are kicking themselves for not picking up years ago. The restaurant opened in mid-December in a converted 1950s garage that had been ignored since the days when the streets of Highland were lined with vintage Buicks and Fleetline Chevrolets. And Cucci was smart. He kept as much of the old service-station detail as he could. The roll-up garage doors that once led into the bays are still there, even if Root Down's bar now sits where the grease monkeys once worked. He saved the tiled walls and plate glass of what must've once been the waiting area and turned it into a private dining room, retained little bits and pieces of sweet architectural detail — railings and posts, sexy curves — and gave even the new building a low-slung solidity so that, at just over three months, Root Down already feels like it's seen a decade or more of consistent trade.
The floor in the main dining room is recycled from a basketball court, the bar top from an old bowling alley lane, both polished to a high gloss. From the tables on the extended patio, customers have one of the best views of the city in the city — the downtown Denver skyline laid out like a postcard and lit up at night like a scattering of diamonds. In its entirety — bar, lobby, main floor and patio — Root Down is just big enough to hold a good-sized rush, yet still small enough to feel comfortably buzzy when only half committed. It flows nicely; no inch is wasted. And even though I have never felt so straight, so old or so blue-collar ugly in my life as when I took my seat on the patio for brunch one Sunday, it's remarkable that Root Down is still the kind of restaurant where you just want to hang out — the kind that makes you feel better and cooler and more connected just for getting a seat.
I liked the service. In their mechanic's shirts, black Ts and blue jeans, the staff was helpful without being condescending, friendly without feeling forced. Everything on the menu was someone's favorite, and they all talked about how much they liked the restaurant. And the bar is just short of amazing. The cocktail list hits the perfect balance between modernity and classicism, pouring a fine Gin Rickey (how long has it been since you've seen one of those?), a variety of mojitos, a Pink Elephant with absinthe and blackberry vodka.
In concept, Root Down operates under a sort of bootstrap culinary communism, with each individual member contributing to the best of his ability, turning all efforts toward the betterment and exaltation of the state. Behind the bar, this works marvelously. But the kitchen is a dystopic example of the worst that can come from such noble urges. Root Down calls itself a "field to fork" restaurant. It is local and organic and "improvisational." It has its own gardens, makes a big deal out of working with local growers. It has a jazz bent (the name taken from a Jimmy Smith song, "Root Down (and Get It)," which references a return to the basics of a tune or, presumably, a dinner) that is supposed to result in "the combined effort of individual strengths coming together to create a rhythmic, interplaying, and improvisational masterpiece. Each player riffs off his or her own talents and history to bring a fresh, new perspective to the ongoing story."
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.
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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.