Christopher Hora, executive chef and owner of Root, is one of the most well-traveled people I have ever met. From Prague to Hong Kong, Thailand to Scotland, the man has lived and cooked everywhere. When asked why he decided to open a restaurant in Philly as an alternative to hopping around Europe and Asia, he replied simply, “I got tired of living out of a suitcase.” And thank goodness for that.
Located directly across from the monstrosity of neon lights that is the Spaghetti Warehouse, Root looks out of place at its home on 10th and Spring Garden. Upon arrival, the curious customer is greeted by natural wood tables, concrete floors and high-gloss white walls completely devoid of adornment. The only artificial light comes from the kitchen; tea lights give the room a calm yet surreal glow. (I learned later from Hora that the wiring of the place was a mess when he arrived, and that he liked candles better anyway.) Root is an ideal Friday night destination for a couple eager to get to know one another. The music isn’t too loud, the lighting is flattering and the minimalist style of the place as a whole is conducive to long conversations and a focused concentration on the restaurant’s most important element: the food.
Serendipitously our meal began with a lobster dish described on the menu as “Lobster Two-Ways;” someone else’s indecision was our fortune. The $27 lobster tail was swimming in a sweet Thai tom-ko sauce, a flavor none of us had experienced before. Japanese eggplant and bok choy complemented the lobster without providing too harsh of a contrast. The e fu noodles, though beautifully homemade, were a little heavy and doughy for my taste, and would have been better if replaced with a lighter pasta alternative. That aside, the coconut sweetness of the sauce is what really made the dish.
Choosing from the list of “small plates” on the menu proved to be quite difficult. Every single one of them appeared uniquely appetizing, and the prices were very reasonable (ranging from $6-$13). Saving the tartare flight with Czech topinky sauce for next time, we decided on the baby octopus as well as the Peking duck spring roll. Knowing very little about octopus, I was originally disconcerted by the rubbery texture of the tiny creature bathed in a spicy olive oil and mustard dressing. After several more bites, I began to appreciate the execution of the dish as a whole; the roasted peppers added tremendous flavor, and not once did a fishy or salty taste disrupt my palate. The Peking duck spring roll did not disappoint either. Exquisitely flavorful with a chewy yet crispy texture, the roll was served piping hot with a generous amount of spicy hoisin sauce. Needless to say, the two rolls ($6) did not last long on the plate.
From the “cheeses” portion of the menu, we chose a dish Hora described as “oh-so-easy:” the ruby pear and fresh goat cheese tart ($10) in strawberry champagne molasses. A big fan of goat cheese, I was distracted by the cake-like sweetness of the pear. The pea shoots also drew attention away from the cheese with their crisp texture and tart flavor. More attention to the crust of the tart and a little less sugar overall would have perfected this dish — the goat cheese itself was just too good alone.
Moving on to the impressive list of entrees, Hora informed us that the oxtail and rabbit raviolo ($15) was Root’s most popular dish to date. Our taste buds agreed with the masses; this dish was by far one of the most interesting, savory and delicious creations I have ever experienced at a restaurant. Artistically presented and adorned with a bright green stalk of bok choy, each open-faced raviolo was bursting with flavor. The meat was tender and salted to perfection with just the right amount of uni beurre blanc drizzled on top to complete the unconventional taste combination. My experience with rabbit has always been an obnoxiously chewy and gamey one; however, the oxtail and culinary prowess of Hora seems to have solved that issue.
The dessert menu ranges from classic to deconstructed, with a $3 buttercream “birthday cake” for the conservative and a French toast soufflé with maple bacon ice cream for the daring. We ordered the latter as well as the highly recommended cheesecake, a small mascarpone and crème fraîche cake sitting in a boysenberry “soup” with a walnut ginger snap perched atop. The cake itself was light and not-too-sweet, but lacking the thicker texture one would expect of cheesecake. Furthermore, the walnut ginger snap was so reminiscent of my morning cereal that its fusion with the creamy cake had me thinking breakfast, not dessert. Fortunately, the French toast soufflé had creativity on its side and thus restored our faith in the breakfast-after-supper idea. The maple bacon ice cream was astoundingly good, acting as a buttery, flavorful accompaniment to the bread-pudding-like texture of the soufflé. This dish confirmed my inkling that Chris Hora is having fun with his restaurant and is willing and eager to entertain with every single one of his dishes.
Root has barely been open a month now, but Christopher Hora’s experience and driven vision have secured his place in the Philadelphia restaurant scene. Every dish is influenced by a different part of the world, yet all come together to form a very cohesive menu that is bound to please anyone’s palate. If you go, you’re almost certain to meet Hora himself (he does everything from cooking the food to busing the tables), and that alone is a treat.