Billing itself as a “neighborhood bistro” and drawing its name from Regent Square’s area code, Root 174 hopes to establish itself as a neighborhood favorite. Pledging to do a movie night with a Star Wars themed meal, chef and owner Keith Fuller is full of ambitious ideas, and Root 174’s eclectic, wild menu effectively displays culinary chutzpah.
This farm-to-table experimentation is best showcased in the appetizers. Confit wings display a masterful array of flavors, from the coffee spiced, crispy wings, to the green curry paste on the side. A sprinkle of dehydrated bananas add more of a crunch than flavor, but their light sweetness tempers the curry’s bite. Bone Marrow Crème Brulee was another triumph of creativity. Bone marrow, the current food fad, is buried beneath a savory pudding of cream, cheese and a crisp top layer of Parmesan. Spread on ciabatta, the bone marrow is sweet and rich. Slices of apple only accentuate the bone marrow’s sweetness and add a light touch of fall to a heavy dish. Fuller’s take on a Caesar salad is no less interesting. Preserving only the essence of a traditional Caesar, the lettuce is grilled. Instead of croutons there are tiny strips of crisp dough that add a salty but crispy touch. But the true clever touch is an insert of a bed of cannellini beans, giving a filling heart to the dish. Also, avoiding a usual pitfall of Caesar salad, dressing is applied appropriately, without drowning the salad.
Root 174 still feels in many ways like a work in progress. After a wait, an order of Concord grape soda is flat and flavorless, tasting like extremely diluted grape juice. A side of Brussels sprouts is served fried and salted, though absolutely nothing to enhance their flavor except a side of gummy bacon jam, which is too sweet to eat.
The main courses are also a hodgepodge of different nationalities, though lack some of the ingenuity of the appetizers. An order of Mexican influenced chicken was set up wonderfully. A bed of grits is smooth, the mole sauce adds spice and sweetness, and a topping of tomato corn salsa adds freshness. However, the chicken (served lightly fried) was far too dry, requiring intensive effort to cut. Still, coupled with the mole sauce and the fresh salsa, it was near impossible not to enjoy. A daily special of mussels, however, was a stumble. Served in a spicy tomato sauce with potatoes, peppers and onions, the sauce lacked any of the intrigue of Root 174’s other options. The mussels themselves lacked any of the subtle sweetness that makes quality mussels appealing. Besides chunks of homemade spicy-sweet sausage, there was nothing memorable in the dish.
Root 174 also offers a variety of vegetarian entrees, and their take on falafel is full of bold flavors. The Falafel itself is not as heavily spiced as many others, but chunks of chickpeas within its crisp exterior added some textual variation. Yet the sides the falafel is served with give it distinction. A side of tapenade is startlingly strong and a streak of homemade harissa hot sauce transported me back to Israel. For dessert, a slice of Peanut Butter & Jelly cheesecake is worth getting simply for the clever arrangement; the fresh jam spread around the just-sweet-enough cheesecake is also enticing.
Root 174 is not the most attractive of restaurants. For seating, there are two long wooden booths on both sides of the restaurant, which are not terribly comfortable. The floor is dirty linoleum, and besides a chalkboard menu of specials, there isn’t much more to look at. Still, the wait staff is so friendly and welcoming that the modest ambiance makes the environment only more endearing. Root 174’s occasionally hiccups are often forgivable due to the casual atmosphere. But if this restaurant wants to live up to the promise of its finest moments (and its price tag), a more refined experience is necessary. Still, when Root 174 shines, as with the appetizers, it is unique, surprising, and a whole lot of fun.
(Root 174 is located at 1113 South Braddock in the Regent Square neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Entrees range from $15-$26.)