Monday, August 3, 2015

Root & Bone NYC

In the summertime the kitchen is the last place you want to be, right? It's hot in there. And that heat can be oppressive. Your hair sticks to the back of your neck. Sweat trickles down the center of your back. You need a separate dish towel just to wipe your forehead and the back of your neck...over and over. You can fan yourself but all that does is circulate the warm air.

Now pretend that kitchen is grandma's. Same summertime heat. It's steamy; made even more humid by the mixing of vapor rising from the pots on the stove and the heated oven where biscuits are baking at 350°. Lawdy mercy it's hot in there. But the swelter that comes from that kitchen is somehow comforting.

The kitchen is the center of the house; the hub. There's a flurry of activity--from checking the pans on the stove, to cutting up the garden fresh vegetables, to gossiping about the latest goings on about town. There's a sense of being part of something and you never know what stories you might hear. And then there're the smells. They make your mouth water in anticipation. As for the heat, well it's nothing a glass of ice cold lavender lemonade can't squelch. Or if you're feeling more spiritedly adventurous, try a Sweet Grass Gin with honey green grape & field greens. Ice cold of course.

That's just what my companion, Mandy, and I did on a recent evening. Mandy and I have dinner together every week. We both write and we use these weekly get togethers to read whatever's new that the other is working on or to catch up on the week. We often like to get out of our neighborhood rut and try something new. Twice a year over 300 restaurants participate in what is known as Restaurant Week. It's an affordable way to eat at what might otherwise be an unaffordable restaurant. Us taking advantage of our desire to find a new neighborhood and experience a new restaurant is what led us to pay our first visit to Root & Bone on Avenue B and 3rd Street in NYC's Alphabet City.

The place is small; the heat and the kitchen equally felt and on display. Don't let any of these things deter you. When you're sitting at your table, or at one of the bars, you might feel like you're at a family reunion. Everyone is sitting closely next to everyone else and all the conversations are happening at once creating a sound that, while less pleasant than a cicada symphony, is much more harmonious than traffic sounds and car horns.

Root & Bone has a menu of easygoing southern food dressed up with city personality. It knows where it comes from but it fits right in with the tastemakers and foodies of NYC.

In the south the evening meal of the day is called supper and that's exactly what Root & Bone calls what many New Yorker's call dinner.

1st course
From the Restaurant Week prefix menu I chose for my first course: Grandma Daisy's Angel Biscuits. Two small homemade biscuits served on a small wooden cutting board with a bowl of honey roasted chicken jus. Jus is just a fancy way of saying juice or gravy. There was a sprig of thyme and small mound of benne seeds and sea salt. For full effect the biscuit should be dipped in the jus then dipped in the sea salt and seeds then savored for all the unadulterated flavor that floods your taste buds.

Main course - Supper
Braised Short Rib Meat Loaf. This is not your grandma's meat loaf. In fact this meat loaf was like no other meat loaf I've ever eaten. For one thing it was texturally not what one would expect of meat loaf.  Meat loaf that is made from ground beef, ground turkey, ground pork, etc., all kind of looks the same. Like it's made from ground meat. This meat loaf had the structure of rib meat that you would eat off the rib. It wasn't ground. The tomato jam and mashed roots that decorated and paired with this meat loaf by design accentuated the flavor. The accompanying green beans and broccoli were seasoned to southern perfection.

This is where I wanted to lose all my manners and decorum and lick the tin pan. I ordered strawberry shortcake. I was hoping that it would be made with a biscuit instead of the sponge cake I grew up calling strawberry shortcake. I was not disappointed. The biscuit was similar in size to one of Grandma Daisy's Angel Biscuits. This biscuit however was so much more. The bottom half was sitting in strawberry juice and topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. The top of the biscuit crowned the berries and cream. The 'so much more' of this biscuit was the sea salt that topped it. Salty and sweet like I'd never tasted it before. I'm aware of the chocolate and popcorn type of salty sweet, but this was so much unexpected goodness that I seriously was sad to take the last bite and made myself put my napkin in the tin pan to prevent myself from lapping the juice up like a dog.

At the end of supper I met chef Jeff McInnes. I'd had the pleasure of watching him work all evening--standing on the sidelines calling out orders, making sure things moved along. He mopped his brow in the heat. I told you that separate dish towel would come in handy. I watched as he mingled with his patrons--inquiring about their meals, making sure they knew exactly how to eat Grandma Daisy's Angel Biscuits. He seemed to have grace under pressure (some people thrive on that pressure) and was kind on top of that. In my observation, he genuinely wanted his guests to enjoy their experience. 

"How was everything?" he asked me.

He's a creative artist, after all, and like other creative artists who infuse there work with a part of their soul--a painter in his brush strokes, a writer in his narrative, a dancer in his dance--there's a part of a his soul in his recipes. Don’t we all want our supporters to enjoy our art?

My response, "So good. Oh my God!"

I know that’s true of everything I write. I want each piece to find its audience: those people who identify with, or laugh at, or cry over the tale. But even when I prepare a dish of food that might be new to its consumer, I desire to please them. I hope they love it as much as I do. There’s a sense of pride in blending the spices and marrying the flavors. From discerning palettes to non, one wants to thrill the tastebuds and excite the senses.

"I'll take that 'Oh my God,'" he smiled.

As we continued to chat beyond my exaltations of the meal, I learned that Jeff is from Alabama. I told him I'm from Kentucky. He was very personable. I told him that I'd been in the City for 18 years and that it's always nice to find a restaurant that offers southern cooking with a twist.

The oh-my-God summed it all up. The food was amazing. The atmosphere may have been hot, the ambient noise more foreground that back, but none of that mattered. The experience at Root & Bone is one that I would gladly repeat. As for the heat, maybe the air conditioner was out. Or maybe it's all just part of the experience. Regardless, I would go back in a heartbeat. Only next time I would hope to greet Jeff as less of a stranger and more of an acquaintance after all I've met him now and as Will Rogers said, "A stranger is just a friend I haven't met yet."