Doubt and cynicism stemming from the Streeterville location and hyperbolic locavore marketing were shattered by two lunches this week at Local Root, a new casual, quick service place in a culinary wasteland.
The locavore clichés hit me immediately. Posted on the window outside is a manifesto about how industrial food is killing everybody and how sustainable restaurants like this are going to save the world. There’s talk about carbon footprints and the owners’ passion for sourcing local ingredients. There’s a massive sign claiming that Local Root will be a zero-waste restaurant, with every byproduct, presumably from a melon’s seeds to a customer’s feces, contributing back to the earth in one way or another. And, of course, there’s a chalkboard. It lists places like La Quercia and Traderspont Creamery and others with resonance among slow foodies and their ilk. There’s also a promise that deliciousness will be enhanced, not compromised, by the restaurant’s sustainability vision.
I love La Quercia and Traderspoint, and the values above are values I share; it’s just that I’ve heard them so many times from counterfeits that my instinct these days is to discount the claims as marketing gimmick. The thing is, Local Root really seems to be living the principles, especially the one about deliciousness being paramount. This was apparent when I walked in and saw that upwards of half the space in the build-out was devoted to kitchen and prep areas, all of which are open for customers to see. In a part of town like this where lunch volumes are high, there’s a temptation to maximize seating and waiting areas at the expense of cooking space. This works fine when a good percentage of your product is based on crappy, processed stuff that comes off of a Sysco truck, as is the case at most places in the area. It doesn’t work when you’re making food from scratch.
At Local Root, even the bread is made from scratch. I couldn’t believe this, but at a prime lunch hour two staff members were working full time rolling out dough for baguettes that were about to hit the oven. To accomplish this, they were using a massive prep table and a workspace as big as my living room. Impressive devotion.
Everything I ate fell somewhere on the continuum from great to good. Sweet and tangy gazpacho that tasted of wonderful in-season tomatoes with a little spicy kick was probably my favorite item. At Local Root, bread thickens the gazpacho more than in most versions, and the soup is served with chopped egg. These are both characterstics of salmorejo, a Spanish gazpacho cousin upon which I suspect this terrific soup is based. Sweet and tangy are themes here, and characterized the beet salad that was my second favorite items, with a thick, maple-balsamic dressing, a mix of earthy and spicy greens, and crumbles of outstanding blue cheese from Traderspoint Creamery. A ham sandwich with meat from an Iowa company called Beeler’s was tasty if not particularly special, served on one of those impressively house-made baguette’s which could have been a bit lighter-textured and crisper for my taste. The fries served with it, however, were exceptional.
I love what the Local Root is doing and will be a frequent customer. I must admit that I did have to get over some sticker shock first though. That ham sandwich with fries was $11.49. The beet salad was a whopping $9.49. There’s a La Quercia prosciutto baguette on the menu for $12.49 and duck confit on brioche for 15 bucks. These prices might be more expected at trendy sit-down restaurants with similar culinary mindset, but they’re tough to swallow at a place where the cashier takes your order and hands you a numbered placard to place on your table until a runner brings the food. That said, there’s a cost to doing a restaurant build-out in the way I described above, and this place is employing a large number of skilled culinary folks, not high school students cooking from a corporate instruction manual as at so many other places in the area. I want to support that and, more importantly, I think the quality of the food here is worth the prices.
(312) 643-1145601 N. McClurg