See chef German Mosquera and his team at work in their beautiful, bounty-filled kitchen in our slideshow.
Roots Bistro is one of the few restaurants where I can leave completely stuffed and not feel bad about it. That's because the main component of all four meals I've had there since it opened in the old Cafe Moustache space in January has been vegetables.
Vegetables of all shapes and sizes and colors, in many different iterations each time: A plate of emerald-green sautéed Swiss chard one night, a dish of baby carrot-infused polenta another night, garnished with more vibrantly hued carrots on top. Even the desserts here are filled with vegetables, such as a stunningly silken avocado-chocolate mousse I've enjoyed on more than one occasion. At Roots Bistro, vegetables take center stage in the most unassuming way possible, charming and delighting with their elegant presentations and smart transformations.
It's unfortunate, then, that I have such great reservations about the place in general.
On one hand, Roots Bistro is a far more welcome addition to this end of the Montrose restaurant strip along Westheimer than its predecessor — a quasi-French bistro that felt like a relic from the 1980s despite being quite young — and it thrills me to see the place packed with neighborhood residents on evenings and at Sunday brunches, when the mimosas are free and the ceilings ring with patrons' laughter and loud, cheerful conversations.
The inviting patio (next to what will soon be Roots' sister venture, a juice bar) is lined with cute, painted gardening utensils in a nod to the veggie-heavy menu and chef's determination to source most of his food from local farmers' markets. The airy interior hasn't changed too much, but it somehow feels fresher and more vibrant, with pop-art paintings lining the walls and a newly opened kitchen that attests to the more accessible nature of the place.
On the other hand, that accessibility is hampered by an often indecipherable menu, capricious service and confusing prices. And these are three things that will turn diners off before they even get to the excellent, veggie-centric New American dishes that chef German Mosquera is serving from that bright, open kitchen.
After a highly successful first visit to Roots Bistro when it first opened, when a friend and I enjoyed not one but two different plates of sautéed kale — each spicy yet earthy and rough yet smooth, beguiling in their simple treatments of the leafy green — and perfectly prepared gnocchi, I couldn't wait to head back a second time.
For that second visit, I brought a good friend who's been a food writer for as long as I've been alive. I probably built Roots up far too much, as our visit came quickly crashing down. We couldn't make heads or tails of many of the ingredients or dishes on the menu such as "lobstree" or "chicken crown." Our waiter was of little help, focusing mainly on flirting with my increasingly annoyed dining companion instead of getting straight answers from the kitchen.
"Lobstree is kind of like a lobster," was his bored reply to our question. And a chicken crown, it turns out, is a dish of two chicken breasts still connected by the breastbone. They were entirely new to both of us — and if we couldn't figure that out between two food writers and two Google-enabled smartphones, I'm fairly sure the average diner would be immediately put off, particularly by the gruff way that questions over the menu were answered.
Lobstree, by the way, still refuses to show up in the Google searches I run, still maddened, week after week. The best I can tell, it was a langostino. Either way, the crustacean we ordered was nearly impossible to eat, its tough carapace holding the meat inside with a vise-like grip that couldn't be cracked without banging the thing like a marrow bone against the table. The $15 price tag for one measly "lobstree" made it all the more offensive. And the broccoli gratin that came so highly recommended by our lovestruck waiter was a mess of oversalted, overspiced broccoli with nary a hint of dairy on top.
Goat pancetta was far better, the delicious bacon-like shreds of meat served atop a salad of wilted greens that offered a nicely sharp background bite to the gaminess of the pancetta. And we were both taken with Roots' offering of an Old and New World wine side by side for only $8, which netted extremely generous pours of each. This mirrors the wine list itself, which is appealing in its frugality and fun, helpful descriptions. Again, Roots could be quite accessible if it weren't for a few major sticking points.
If I was wounded by the $15 lobstree, however, it was nothing compared to a recent brunch with my parents, patrons of an old-school brunching system in which dishes are accompanied by endless pours of coffee and enough food to have kept Jesus from having to make loaves and fishes for his buddies. They were quite taken, however, with a brunch menu that ranged from Texas veal breast and soft scrambled eggs to an heirloom tomato pizza. (Roots, it should be noted, has an excellent pizza oven and will turn virtually any dish on the menu into a pizza if you ask.)
But it was a different tomato dish that intrigued them the most — an heirloom tomato salad with Himalayan pink salt — as well as a Celeste fig and Idiazabal cheese plate that our friendly waiter recommended. We ordered both along with complimentary sangrias and waited.
The food came out quickly enough, although we soon found out that "complimentary" appears to mean "one glass and then we mostly ignore your empty glass instead of offering you a different beverage instead." It's hard to complain about free stuff, so I'm won't. I'm complaining about having an empty glass for almost the entire meal without being offered the chance to purchase a glass of orange juice or bubbles to replace it.
But if the empty glasses were annoying, the tomato and fig plates quickly sent my parents over the top. On the $19 fig plate, one Celeste fig was split in half and set next to another, smaller Golden fig that had also been halved. One quarter of another fig rounded out the plate, along with a small wedge of Idiazabal, a Spanish sheep's-milk cheese. And on the $12 tomato plate were three cherry tomatoes cut in half, one half of a larger tomato and five tiny Cherubs on the vine. My parents goggled, looking at the plates and then back to me, as if to say, "So this is how you spend your money?!"
My father's $20 Texas veal breast over two duck eggs was almost pure gristle and barely cooked. My mother's "Kobe" beef omelet filled with crème fraîche was good but marred by an oddly sweet jam-like sauce on the side. Only my Swiss chard and potato hash with fried eggs was a complete triumph, but that small plate still set me back $15. Two medium-size peach muffins with maple syrup were a nice "dessert" but cost $2.50 each.
Before tip and without booze, we'd managed to rack up a $99 bill at brunch for only three people. It was a far cry from the dinner I'd had there only two weeks prior, in which my best friend and I chatted happily over a relatively inexpensive sirloin-topped pizza with stretchy cheese beautifully melted over a soft, thin crust — all of it a tribute to Chef Mosquera's skills in the kitchen, as he himself is vegan and would likely never eat or even taste the pizza himself.
We were just as pleased with our vegetable dishes that night, too, including an ample portion of baby carrot polenta for $12 and a bright, bouncy kale and avocado salad that resonated with spicy crunches of cucumber and a stunning curry dressing. And neither our wine nor water glasses were ever empty that evening.
If Roots can work out its service kinks and make its menu more user-friendly, it will no doubt become one of the most appreciated and useful restaurants in Montrose for its veggie-friendly attitude, if nothing else. But vegetable-centric cuisine is still new in steak-loving Houston, and while I understand the costs associated with picking produce straight from the markets "three times a week," which is what Chef Mosquera claims to do, the city isn't quite ready to support a nearly $20 plate of two and a half figs. I desperately hope that Roots gets its pricing in line, and soon, because I want to become a regular there — without going broke in the meantime.
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