The Roots of sustainable agriculture
The first thing you’ll notice about Roots Restaurant and Cellar, which is located over the river from downtown Milwaukee at 1818 N. Hubbard Street, is the wonderful, earthy root-and-branch metal artwork that invites guests through the front door (it continues inside).
It would seem that no expense was spared in decorating this higher-end, yet affordable Milwaukee original. The popular downstairs “Cellar” and the upstairs area where the first of two dining rooms is located are decorated simply, but with a sophistication echoed in the restaurant’s multi-cultural theme and menu.
The warm interior design — replete with wood everywhere — is that of an alpine Japanese tea lodge with South Pacific accents overlooking one of the best views of the downtown skyline. You know you’re in for a sensuously eclectic, cross-cultural dining adventure when you finally peruse the menu in its delicate, decorated paper cover.
Emphasizing sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, owner/chef John Raymond offers a variety of creative, culinary fusion selections. Starters include Hot & Sour Mussels (daikon radish relish, lobster oil, warm baguette) or Vegan-Chorizo Stuffed Pepper (pumpkin “cheese,” pepita mole), both for $9.
Ah, but the entrees!
Where else in Milwaukee can you get Blackened Gulf Catfish with “Chicken Foot” Gumbo, Carolina Gold Rice and Fried Okra ($24), or Whey-braised Veal Short ribs featuring autumn-vegetable paprikash, pork belly dumpling, brussels and curd ($26), with naturally raised meats, sashimi-grade fish and a large quantity of vegetables grown right here in Wisconsin?
Mrs. M. positively swooned over her hefty hunk of perfectly prepared, Truffle-seared Tenderloin accompanied by Chevre-whipped Potatoes and Madeira Black-truffle Glace for $36. After having the classic Caesar salad with house-made croutons for $7 (with the subtlest hint of anchovy in the dressing, which is hard to achieve), Mr. M. explored the Chipotle-grilled Prawns with Vanilla Black Beans, Mufungo, Mojo Criollo and Avocado for $25.
And here, alas, is where we found trouble in paradise: Though Chef John’s kitchen gets major points for serving some of the tastiest smoky, grilled prawns that Mr. M. can recall having (an especially nice touch was that the three, jumbo shrimp came peeled, but with the heads and tails intact), his kitchen loses points for serving Mr. M. what resembled in taste and texture a blackened, West African bean fritter, rather than the golden-fried, oh-so garlicky Puerto Rican delight that Mr. M. was eagerly anticipating.
Such a delight is made of shrimp and plantains and is commonly spelled “mofongo” in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Hispanic parts of the Caribbean. Mr. M. knows his mofongo well, and that was not mofongo on his plate at Roots. The tough, dried-out, overcooked black beans (that rolled around the plate) also made the dish less appealing for Mr. M. And, although the prawns were large, one more prawn would’ve been nice, too (they’re a lot smaller than they look sans head and tail!).
But the amazing selection of dishes, the origins of the ingredients and the overall taste and appearance make Roots a superlative dining experience. The cozy atmosphere of the restaurant, its attractive wood-rich décor, the splendid river/cityscape views and the very friendly and accommodating staff should put Roots Restaurant and Cellar at or near the top of your list of unique dining choices in southeastern Wisconsin. And, because it’s eco-friendly, you can feel really good about supporting this little Milwaukee gem.
Roots Restaurant and Cellar
1818 N. Hubbard St.
Major credit cards accepted. Reservations recommended for main dining room only.
By the way, Mr. M. loves making and eating West African bean fritters. Here’s the recipe — enjoy!
1 can (15 oz.) black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained
1 large egg
2 tablespoons chopped, green onion/scallion (or any type onion will do)
2 to 3 teaspoons chopped ginger root or 1 to 1½ teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeño or Serrano chili
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup plain, dry bread crumbs
¼ cup cornmeal
Vegetable oil, for frying
Ginger-Tomato Dipping Sauce (recipe follows).
Process the black-eyed peas, egg, onion, ginger root, jalapeño chili and salt in a food processor or blender until smooth. Transfer the mixture to medium bowl. Stir in the bread crumbs. To shape the fritters, roll one tablespoon of the pea mixture into a small ball or oval shape; coat lightly with cornmeal. Repeat with remaining mixture.
Heat oil in medium saucepan to 350 degrees. Fry fritters, four or five at a time, until browned, about four to five minutes. Drain on paper towels; keep warm in 200-degree oven until ready to serve.
Spoon Ginger-Tomato Dipping Sauce in center of small plates; arrange fritters on sauce. Makes about a dozen fritters. The raw fritters may be rolled and coated several hours before cooking; refrigerate, covered.
Ginger-Tomato Dipping Sauce
½ can (14½-ounce size) diced tomatoes, undrained
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeño chili
1 tablespoon chopped gingerroot or 1 to 2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Process all ingredients, except the oil, in a food processor or blender until smooth. Sauté the sauce in the oil in a small skillet until thickened. Makes about a three-quarter cup.