At Root 174, unusual flavors add inspiration to a diverse menu that includes vegan dishes
October 6, 2011 4:00 AM
Chef Keith Fuller in the kitchen at Root 174 in Regent Square.
The hangar steak (front), falafel (right) and gnocci (left) served at Root 174 in Regent Square.
The gnocci dish at Root 174 in Regent Square.
Bone marrow creme brulee at Root 174 in Regent Square.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Legume Bistro departed Regent Square for Oakland, owners Trevett and Sarah Hooper performed a last neighborly act: They hand-picked their replacement, giving early notice of the space's availability to a chef they felt would do right by it. Keith Fuller had begun to make a name for himself at Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown, arriving as sous chef and taking over as executive chef when Chris Jackson departed for New York in 2008.
While the menu changed, it was mostly in the details. The style was Six Penn's still, and it wasn't quite possible to discern Mr. Fuller's culinary point of view behind the vegetarian wings or cracklin' pork shank.
At Root 174, the food, the space, even the style of service, felt personal. The food in particular is distinctive. It could best be labeled as contemporary American, but even that doesn't seem quite right. There are ingredients from myriad countries, and plates exhibit plenty of classical technique, but Mr. Fuller seems inspired primarily by textures and flavors, often alighting upon unexpected combinations that prove surprisingly harmonious.
A chilled fruit soup of apple and pear was more tart than sweet, a lively contrast to the softer flavors of sweet lump crab and chewy, nutty barley ($6). Coffee added texture and a smoky depth to confited chicken wings, smaller and more intensely flavored than the behemoth wings supplying your average bar ($9). A cilantro-heavy green curry sauce was thick and smooth enough to spread on with a knife, while crushed banana chips, more texture than flavor, added a lip-smacking crunch.
Other dishes tweaked classics and tasted entirely fresh: The Root salad layered a spicy carrot puree, thinly sliced roasted beets and crisp arugula ($8). The use of colors was almost painterly, the golden and purple beets gleaming through the lacy greens against a warm orange backdrop. But it was the tingling heat and heft of the habanero-carrot puree that made this dish stand out from all other beet salads.
An Ahi tuna spring roll was uber-Asia, combining multiple influences into one delicious, whimsical plate. A sizable portion of tuna was wrapped first in nori then in rice paper and fried, crisping up the wrappings and cooking the tuna just at the edges. The knife-and-fork twist on the ubiquitous fried spring roll was further dressed up with vegetable fried rice, house-made kimchi and a precisely arranged pile of lime green tobiko ($28).
Where the tuna was crisp and assertively flavored, a bowl of gnocchi was all warmth and comfort, lightly chewy dumplings crisped up in a pan and tossed with cherry tomatoes, peas and parmesan, an over-easy egg melting into a rich sauce ($19).
A fantastically creative taco turned a deboned trout into a crispy shell, filled with a corn and arugula salad richly dressed with chipotle aioli, the whole thing set on a bed of creamy-textured refried black beans ($24). Normally, the stuffing includes lump crab as well, but for the sake of a guest with seafood allergies, we asked to leave it out and the kitchen gracefully accommodated. The fish is available pan-fried or deep-fried, and at the suggestion of our server we chose the latter, which resulted in a marvelously crisp fish, with sweet, tender white flesh.
Not all restaurants as refined as this one embrace deep frying. But Mr. Fuller has no fear of fat, and he uses the technique to outstanding effect. A luscious grilled hanger steak sauced with a port wine demi-glace was nearly outshone by its accompaniments -- a golden-brown goat cheese croquette and a half-dozen "fingerling fries." Fingerling potatoes were first gently simmered in bay-leaf scented water, then deep fried until golden brown, so that their crisp skins gave way to almost impossible smooth, creamy flesh ($24).
Impressive technical ability aside, the real secret weapon of the Root 174 kitchen is its arsenal of unusual, house-made condiments, each of which had the ability to take a dish from tasty to lick-your-plate-clean delicious.
Tender, fluffy falafel were nestled in a bed of curried rice, the mild flavor of the chickpea dumplings a perfect foil for a cooling cardamom-yogurt dressing, a tangy olive tapenade and a house-made harissa, hot, sweet and a little smoky ($15).
A spectacular black pepper bacon jam was folded into a moist hash of potatoes, scallions and darkly sweet peaches, cooked until meltingly soft, all of that topped with two day boat scallops, seared golden brown to bring out their own saline sweetness ($12). Crispy brussels sprouts sauced in more of that jam was a side dish to win over any cabbage hater ($6).
Smoky raisin-cocoa jam was almost as good, its sweet, dark flavors cutting through the richness of a pork-fat confited pork shank one week, an unctuous braised pork belly the next ($19). Both were rounded out with goat cheese polenta and broccoli raab, which added a lovely hint of bitterness, echoed by the cocoa note in the jam.
Mr. Fuller's business partner, Patrick Bollinger, is vegan, and it was important to him that Root 174 offer vegan and vegetarian options. Making restaurant food shine without the use of meat or fish, much less without butter, cream or cheese, is quite challenging, but, as Root 174 demonstrates, not at all impossible: Take the cauliflower salad, the cauliflower roasted to a dark brown, bringing out sweet, caramel-like notes, then layered with crunchy red cabbage, crisp pea shoots and a sweet chile sauce that leaned hard on the chile ($7). A sprinkling of peanuts added another layer of flavor and texture. This salad might be vegan, but it was mostly delicious.
Vegetarian options include the Root salad, the gnocchi and the falafel, and the most recent vegan entree is a "meatloaf" of lentils, beans and mushrooms, served with a Root vegetable polenta, brussels sprout leaves and a smoked raisin jam ($18).
The paper menu changes frequently, and is augmented with a chalkboard listing soup, mussels, a vegetable side and desserts. Servers typically add verbal specials, enthusiastically endorsing their favorite dishes in the process.
One or two less impressive dishes were easily forgotten among so many winners. A roasted chicken breast came beautifully browned but disappointingly dry ($22). I mostly ignored it in favor of the fantastic accompaniments, a savory mole sauce layered with creamy popcorn grits and a bright, fresh tomato salsa. A grilled romaine salad with white beans, Caesar dressing, crispy shallots and chopped tomatoes was tasty but not as distinctive as the other salads ($8). Interestingly, it was one of the only dishes that seemed reminiscent of a dish from Six Penn Kitchen.
The only real weakness was the desserts, good enough on their own, but oddly disjointed from the rest of the menu. However well executed, chocolate espresso cake with vanilla-rum buttercream ($7), a vegan brownie with a coconut-banana puree ($7) and a creme brulee with a peach and mixed berry compote ($6) seemed uninspired when compared with the originality of the savory dishes. A recent addition, PB&J cheesecake with Cap 'N Crunch backyard concord jelly, sounds slightly more promising ($7).
The space has been given a slightly more masculine, modern edge with warm red and brown walls, sleek wooden banquettes and a tin ceiling painted a rustic bronze. It's handsome, if a touch austere. Root 174 embraced the identity of "neighborhood restaurant," but clearly draws from throughout the region, offering an eclectic mix within its cozy dining room. The crowd is as diverse as the menu, a place for the young and old, hipsters and even vegans and pork-lovers to meet and mingle over dishes that are delicious, memorable and comforting, an unexpected combination and a wonderful second act for 1113 S. Braddock Ave.