I don't know if I'm a masochist or an optimist. Either way, I keep returning to Roots Bistro hoping, thinking that one day the prices will fall in line with the wonderful, farmers-market-fresh food and I can add a new neighborhood favorite to my list. So far, this has not yet happened.
Instead, what I do is go and have $18 plates of roasted vegetables at brunch -- delicious roasted vegetables, plated beautifully and served with a trio of splendid dipping/drizzling sauces like a champange vinaigrette -- and then bemoan the price afterward. It was the first taste of new chef Chandler Rothbard's food since he took over for previous head chef German Mosquera, and between those roasted vegetables and a $15 skillet of carbonara-style macaroni and cheese there's no denying the food is quite good.
But how could I have spent $18 on one plate of vegetables? I couldn't buy $18 worth of organic vegetables at the grocery store or farmers market to feed just one person. That $18 could and should easily stretch to feed at least four people. It was the same sense of shock I felt when I paid $19 for a plate of figs at Roots last year.
I found myself discussing this issue with a good friend and longtime restaurant veteran, who'd gone to brunch at Roots the day after I had recently. "The Chez Panisse of Lower Westheimer?" he jokingly suggested we call the place, after Alice Water's famous farm-to-table restaurant (featuring wood-fired ovens, just like Roots) in Berkeley, California.
"Way too expensive for their own good," he texted me after his first meal there. More to the point, he said, this disconnect between price and value "hurts the farmer by reinforcing the notion that farm to table is expensive."
Yet despite this, I had high hopes for Roots' new companion project, a low-key juice bar situated in a low-slung space next door: Roots Juice. It's attached to the restaurant by a doorway, but it's worlds removed from the chic, slightly upscale vibe of Roots. Roots Juice is the Toms-wearing little sister who shops at a co-op and listens to Pacifica. Perhaps I should have expected the juices to be equally expensive -- both considering Roots' general mark-up and considering the fact that being a hippie type does seem to go hand-in-hand with having lots of disposable income these days. Either way, I was shocked to find that the juices were $7.
Then again, Roots isn't alone. Many places charge roughly the same. At Snap Kitchen -- a personal favorite -- the juices are $7 to $8 a pop. Green Seed Vegan does better, charging $5 for almost all of its juices. And Texas Juice Girl -- the juice spot on wheels -- charges a whopping $10 a pop for the daily line-up of beverages in its "Guided Pressed Juice Cleanse," but at least those are delivered to your door.
By comparison, the juices you can buy at H-E-B (one of my favorite spots for fresh, raw, blended fruit and vegetable juices) are $3.99 for 16 ounces -- the size of a $7 juice at Roots -- and $6.99 for 32 ounces. And the juices like the Vampiro -- a blend of carrots, apples, oranges and beets -- at Doshi House are only $3.85, proving that offering inexpensive juices can be done, in both retail and restaurant settings.
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I feel compelled to point out two very important things in all of this: The juice I ordered at Roots Juice was excellent, an invigorating blend of beets, carrots, jalapeños, cucumbers, celery and spinach. And the customer service is excellent, even if the execution can be uneven. One part of our order came out much later than the rest, and was missing several main ingredients.
Our server noticed this and quickly comped the entire meal without question. We told him it wasn't necessary, but he insisted -- and then sent the manager over to check on us afterward. This kind of attitude makes me forgive a lot of sins, and stands as yet another reason I just can't quit Roots. I just wish I could afford to dine there more often.