Lofty aspirations to cook “just, sustainable” food and a dogged devotion to sourcing ingredients locally is risky business. For one thing, there’s the food cost; even if consumers are ethically predisposed to food that packs more of a nutritional punch and less of a carbon footprint, how do you convince families on a budget to pay a little more for a plate that’s bound to be smaller? Then there are the cruel vagaries of farming: Do you 86 the frisee and fennel when everything in your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone up and bolted after a record-breaking, hot, dry June? Even if you can navigate that delicate farm-to-table supply chain without running out of half your menu items and writing off unsold proteins for the next day’s soup du jour, there’s perception with which to contend: How do you execute the whole mission without being uppity or preachy when diners’ expectations are unrealistic?
As far as we could tell, none of that’s been a problem for The Root since the “community through local food” restaurant last year expanded its operations to include full-service dinners Wednesday through Saturday on top of its daytime counter service. By the time we meandered in, on a sunny, 93-degree Thursday evening, the parking lot was overflowing. We were offered a nook by the concave window opposite the counter/cash register area until a table in The Root’s newish dining room —repurposed shipping containers — opened up. After a few moments perched in what was undoubtedly the “Order Here” window back when the building housed the Sweden Creme dairy bar, we decided switching to a table might be a lateral move, and that we were perfectly happy to dine on barstools in the sunny windowsill, surrounded by all manner of kitsch: a pencil cactus, an antique coffee mill, a jar of shims for steadying wobbly chairs, a giant aloe plant in a vintage potato chip canister and a view of the patio and the oversized, surrealist singing vegetables painted on a wall outside. It’s the sum of all these decorative touches — once-functional items now relegated to tchotchke status — that charm at The Root, and that keep it warmly in Grandma’s house-and-gingham territory, never desperate or modish.
Presented with a mini-menu of specials and a list of desserts (which landed on our counter with a preface: “Dessert! Order it later, order it now, order it in the middle, whatever”), we opted for the Seared Gnocchi ($9) to start things off. Gnocchi reads as cold weather food, but done right — and it was — it’s pillowy light. The Root’s is a succotash-like dish handcrafted to showcase summer produce. The tiny dumplings, seared to a dark brown on one side, are situated in a light tomato-y glaze among Sungold cherry tomatoes and charred corn kernels. We couldn’t resist the oddball allure of the Vegetable Cracklins ($4), and you shouldn’t, either. In fact, we’d put the fried, slightly peppery veggie rinds in front of a dogmatic carnivore any day and challenge them not to like it.
Serving cocktails is new this year for The Root and the ones we ordered were a little long in coming, but when they turned up, all was forgotten and forgiven. The Hard Blackberry Basil Lemonade ($7) was an icy Rock Town Vodka concoction with a crisp tang and a fuschia tint to it. Imbibers looking for a heftier or sweeter cocktail might think the drink’s balance leaned too watery, but served in a highball glass like this, the hydration was refreshing. The Heirloom Mary ($7) was a surprise, but pleasantly so: The Rock Town vodka, clarified heirloom tomato and vermouth concoction arrived looking more like a crystal-clear Aviator — a transparent, airy cocktail garnished with a tiny, tender pickled okra, another orange Sungold and a lemon rind spiral. Seven dollars is a steal for handcrafted booze but, if the 33 percent Arkansas liquor tax irks you or your wallet, consider the flip side of the drink menu: nearly a page full of nonalcoholic teas, kombuchas, coffees, sodas and freshly squeezed lemonades, some flavored with syrups from Pink House Alchemy.
In any other universe, we’d have chosen the Pork Carnitas with shoulder sourced from Rabbit Ridge Farms ($15), but this was post-Fourth of July and porcine fatigue had set in hard. So, sizzling weather be damned (yet again), we went for the Homemade Chicken and Dumplings ($13), a hearty bowl of stew with speckled (whole wheat flour, perhaps?) flat-rolled dumplings and carrots. The complex broth and the combination of dark meat and shredded light meat suggested The Root probably uses the whole chicken expeditiously, and good on ’em. The salad alongside would be familiar to (and likely beloved by) anyone who’s lunched at The Root. Tangy dollops of homemade dressing and julienned zucchini (or jicama, maybe?) atop a pile of the darkest greens gave us something to munch on while the unbelievably hot bowl of dumplings cooled a little.
The star, though, was the Smoked Shiitakes plate ($14), two dense cornbread cakes topped with a vinegary purple hull pea relish and shiitake mushroom caps smoked to a deep caramel and countered with a hefty serving of braised greens. For those strongly averse to sugar in their cornbread, note this: These cakes are not for you. They’re unabashedly sweet, with arguably more kinship to a Greek halva than a salty hot water cornbread cake.
We couldn’t help but notice a little confusion to the workflow. Perhaps because we opted to stay seated in the anteroom, or perhaps because the crowd boomed just after we were seated, several people — friendly as they were — seemed to be sharing serving duties, making for some confusion about what had been taken care of where, at which table. On the other hand, The Root’s owners, Jack Sundell and Corri Bristow Sundell, who wandered through about an hour before closing time to greet customers and check in on the place, would likely be pleased at the meal’s through line: The hive of activity inside and outside our window view, one that made good on the “community” bit of the cafe’s mission statement. As the crowd of diners swelled even further, a host ventured out to the patio garden to retrieve a sprig of spearmint, an old man beaded with sweat sidled through the parking lot shielding his bald head with a wet towel, a woman approaching a six-top on the patio looking for the restaurant entrance was met with a chorus of directional fingers extended toward the front (side) door, a ruggedly fit young man with a Hold Steady T-shirt sipped on a “Real” Coca-Cola out of a slim bottle and a young family at the next table tested flavors out on their toddler. It was proof that “In Defense of Food” author Michael Pollan was right: real food reaches “back to the land and outward to other people.”
The Root Cafe
1500 Main St.
Ingenuity in the preparation of plant-based foods is as advanced as ever and, in the right hands, ingredients like cashew nuts and coconut milk can work textural magic. That said, it’s rare that we come across a dish that makes us eye the “vegan” label with hard skepticism. Count The Root’s impossibly decadent Vegan Chocolate Brulee ($6) among them. It’s the non-dairy dish for any vegans who’ve ever found themselves dreaming of verboten heavy creams and expensive butters — a dark cocoa confection bookended by a pool of sweet blackberry compote and a stiff sheet of torched sugar (none of this barely torched, slightly bubbly nonsense). Do it.
7 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Beer, wine, cocktails, credit cards accepted.