Before I start spewing I feel compelled to acknowledge that with the exception of Peaks Lounge, of all places, & Saigon Bowl, it seems to have been quite a while since I’ve posted a mainly positive review. Not fancying myself the unacknowledged Pauline Kael of Denver dining, I’d just as soon keep the focus on the fun fun fun of eating out—the whole convivial shebang, not just the food. And I’m all too aware what a tough business running a restaurant is—the majority of restaurateurs, chefs & floor staffs alike love what they do & work long & hard at it. Look, I’ve devoted the past several years of my life to making their business my business; I only piss & moan for the same reason I give praise, because I love.
But my 1st experience at Root Down rubbed me in so many wrong ways I’ll need a full-on Banya session getting beaten with twigs to smooth out.
It actually started before I got there, with a look at the website. Not only is it splattered with twaddle—”Like Jazz, we are the summation of different flavorful perspectives rhythmically combining seasons and foods into a [sic] asymmetrical masterpiece”; “We’re the [sic] all about the convention of life in all it’s [sic] eclectic glory”—but, as the quotations also show, it’s riddled with typos (“terriyaki,” “pommegranate,” “coissant,” & “grens,” to name a few; & while “shitake” actually is a legit variant of shiitake, is it really the one you want to use in a supposedly appetizing context?).
What does poor spelling have to do with the quality of the dining experience, you protest? As I’ve argued before, possibly nothing—but potentially everything. To me it suggests carelessness at best, ignorance about the tools (ingredients, techniques, regional/foreign traditions, what have you) of one’s own trade at worst.
The curtain on the shitshow of pretension really lifted, however, upon our entry into the former gas station, now a temple of postironic retro chic screamingly teeming with the sorts of fetching smarty-pantses whose turf is by definition the place to be at any given moment. The dining room is actually a welcoming space, warmly lit, with a lovely view of the downtown skyline; less hospitable, though, is the bathroom, whose decor is likely supposed to be cheeky but frankly just strikes me as mocking.
Granted, the offense I take undoubtedly says more about me than about the designer. But in response to the implied message that I should be thinking about my weight, my inclination is to nod, cancel my order, go straight home & mutter blackly over a bowl of soup.
Maybe even my own take on Root Down’s roasted beet & parsnip soup.
After all, it wouldn’t be very hard to recreate; given its very fresh but otherwise unremarkable, one-dimensional flavor, they can’t have done much more than hit a button on the blender. The only real oomph came from a sprinkling of walnut-orange gremolata & a drizzle of yogurt; perhaps with another heaping tablespoon of the latter & a little more good old S&P, it might nearly have been worth $5 for all of a cup (that said, the price is actually $7. And that’s for the full portion, too, not the $4 half, which must be doled out in an eyedropper or something). The counter to the oft-made argument that a chef’s job is to get out of the way of his ingredients—to showcase them in all their pristine glory—is that I can do that too. Minimal prep is what home cooking’s for.
I’d asked our server if the panzanella would be sufficient for a main course; he said he thought so, because of “all the bread in it.” You can count the cubes yourself—6.
That’s not panzanella, that’s a side salad with croutons. This is panzanella—
an exemplar of cucina povera created to stick to the ribs of peasants whose cupboards were bare of meat but bursted with stale bread. See the difference, kids?
The rest of it, like the soup, was just plain boring. Having expected some sort of warm mélange of richly caramelized root veggies, I got instead a few random pieces of unappealingly al dente carrots, parsnips & fennel with arugula that just sat there & let the balsamic vinegar do all the talking, along with a few daubs of goat cheese & an admittedly generous handful of pinenuts. They said, “Help! Get us out of here & into another dish!”
I sort of did, by ordering the sweet-&-sour fire-roasted eggplant bruschetta likewise topped with fresh cheese (feta this time) & pinenuts, as well as golden raisins & chives—
from a server who not once but twice pronounced it brooshetta. Really? In 2009, some 20 years after its importation from Italy into mainstream American kitchens? When there are even Facebook groups for people who make fun of people who still don’t know it’s broosketta? See above re spelling, & add pronunciation; I don’t really fault the server for his mistake half so much as management for their negligence in training. I do fault the server for his apparent inability to do more than 1 thing (say, remove a single empty glass) at a time, disappearing for 10 minutes between each thing to go do 1 thing at some other table (we’d been there for 25 minutes before we even got drinks, at which point I had to practically manhandle him to stay put & take our order). A seemingly sweet kid, he was nonetheless as unseasoned as the soup & salad.
As for the bruschetta itself, I’d judged from the words “sweet & sour” that the topping would resemble caponata, a Sicilian relish that does indeed have a sweet-sour savor; it too contains eggplant, raisins & pinenuts, as well as tomatoes, capers, peppers, onions, vinegar & sometimes celery and olives—in short, despite a little bit of sugar, it remains essentially savory, vegetal. Off-balance to the point of being downright sugary, this version made for a bitter end to an all-around failure of a meal.
Meanwhile, the Director’s selection was, in the main, so superior to mine I’d have wondered if I’d just ordered wrong, except that A) I’m still not convinced there is such a thing & B) our companions weren’t remotely impressed with their dishes either, among them “rice-crispy” calamari with tomato-chili salsa & arugula—
about which there was, again, simply nothing interesting. Like so much else, the calamari, though cooked okay, was underseasoned, the sauce very fresh-tasting but otherwise bland.
By strange comparison, the Director’s tuna tartare—usually at the top of my list of dishes that put me to sleep before I’m done chewing—was a thrill,
the fat, juicy pearls of fish touched with just enough salt & chili to up their own luster all the more, served with the most delicate of pappadum.
Even more agreeably complex was his Spanish Caesar salad—
the dressing creamy yet pungent, the shredded manchego in abundance, & the whole thing made new by “gnocchi croutons” (though a more accurate name would have been “tater tots”;
&, perched atop the fresh anchovies, a shard of superb “frozen Xerez [sic] vinegar” that, of course, melted neatly into the romaine.
His buffalo sliders, however, were more like backsliders.
Cute & plump as they were—& in contrast to all the other errors on the side of underseasoning—their Mongolian barbecue sauce & (er) shiitake relish completely overpowered the patties. True, the teriyaki slaw in the middle—composed, IIRC, mainly of carrots & burdock root—was terrific, bold & splashy; it just wasn’t the point, is all.
Speaking of the point—the fact that, as I think even my artless photos show, presentation was highly polished only further proves mine: that Root Down is basically just the enfant terrible of the current local restaurant scene, spending its considerable energy cultivating undeniably unique style at the expense of substance. It’s that very energy, however, that may serve the infant well as it matures & develops some character. I’ll go back & check in on it at some point, like when it’s old enough not to need a sitter.