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Where Y'Eat: Edible Exotica at Root

Manchego foam tops fried oysters at Root.
Ian McNulty
Manchego foam tops fried oysters at Root.

High style, edible exotica and a disarmingly fun approach power a unique new restaurant in downtown New Orleans.

Chefs are busy finding specialty suppliers for everything from yard eggs to seasonal herbs these days. But Philip Lopez was foraging for something a little different before opening his new restaurant Root in the Warehouse District. He needed empty cigar boxes, about 50 of them, just for starters.

They were for his scallops, which he first crusts with atomized chorizo sausage, then sears, then nestles in one of those cigar boxes before hitting them with a waft of smoke from, of all things, a cigar. When the waiter opened the box at our table, that distinct, wet-leathery aroma shared by grandfathers and card games everywhere rose in a visible cloud.

Once the smoke cleared, its faint essence lingered over the sweet-tasting scallops, though it was the novelty of the dish that made the lasting impression, as the chef no doubt intended. This restaurant, Root, is refreshingly different, and even if it can seem provocative here or a touch gimmicky there, it’s most of all fun, with an edgy approach undercut by a playfulness that makes it more about food geek than food snob.

It also seemed to come out of nowhere. Root materialized late in 2011 in the space that had been the restaurant Feast just a few months earlier. In no time, chef Lopez and business partner Maximilian Ortiz cooked up a place where highly conceptual dishes relying on specialized kitchen technology  -- like dehydrators and sous vide cookers -- share the card with others based on deep-running traditions from around the globe.

The same kitchen that spins foie gras into cotton candy produces a long roster of charcuterie and pickles everything from leeks to strawberries. Then there’s a thick, perfectly cooked chunk of lemon fish with udon noodles fashioned in part from fish flakes. The Chinese-style steamed buns wrapped around duck and herbs are made black with squid ink you can’t really taste, while the manchego foam over fried oysters is almost too ephemeral to handle but practically drags you in, nose first, just the same. Desserts are just as dramatic, if not more so. This is a risk-taking restaurant where culinary craft underlies culinary art.

Root is in a very old warehouse with exposed timbers and weathered brick, and that’s about the end of any obvious New Orleans reference points. The design is unambiguously modern, with furnishings that could have come from a Stanley Kubrick set. Waiters sometimes seem a little breathless as they explain the menu, but you can hardly blame them. There’s a lot here, and everything has some twist or detail worth explaining.  For instance, the smoked chicken was deeply, wonderfully smoky, though it was only later that I learned some of that came from a sheet of “mushroom paper,” a wafer-thin sheen of dehydrated fungus, invisibly melted into the bird.

When Root is hopping there’s an infectious energy, and this can last ‘til the wee hours. Come by after midnight on the weekends, and it seems like half the sous chefs in town are digging into plates of lobster lasagna, lamb sausage and roasted marrow bones at the bar. Root feels very much of the moment, even if that’s not a moment we see too often here in New Orleans.

200 Julia St., New Orleans, (504) 252-9480

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.

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