I had demolished two of my Wild Lobster Mushroom Brioche “Ravioli” at Roots Bistro before I realized how clever they were.
At first I just luxuriated in the tastes and textures of the small biscuity sandwiches: the buttery, soft crumb of the split brioche buns; the meaty woodland savor of the sauteed mushrooms filling; the tart, umami-slanted burst of that dab of pureed mushroom “ricotta” on top.
I was swabbing an arc of delicate porcini-mushroom cream with the last of my second mini-sandwich when it hit me: this was the vegetarian version of that old-school Houston party buffet standby, Beef on a Bun, in its classic form involving tenderloin and a horseradish cream sauce.
This realization delighted me. But then, so does much of what chef German Mosquera produces at his unconventional young Montrose restaurant, where vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, omnivores and wine buffs can all sit down happily together, secure in the knowledge that everyone at the table is likely to find something interesting to eat and drink.
The young and ponytailed Mosquera happens to be a vegan himself, but he hasn’t let his dietary regime limit what he offers his customers since opening in March. He has his pre-vegan working experience to draw on: A vegan for just the past four years, Mosquera’s last post was as chef for Ruggles Green.
He has a solid kitchen line who eat all over the map. He has a keen sense of smell (that’s how he judges the cheeses so dear to his vision, even though he doesn’t eat them anymore) and a demanding nose for good ingredients, scoping out the farmers markets and suppliers with high standards.
Most of all, though, he has ideas. Lots of them. A few of them may crash-land onto the plate, but often they click, and his spirit of invention makes Roots Bistro unlike anything else in town.
Consider the quail egg and wild onion pizza that sailed forth from the wood-burning oven on a recent Saturday night. The thin, layer-y crust wasn’t geared to rabid pizza snobs, but it worked well with its bright swab of tomato sauce, its green lengths of onion scape braised to the melting point, and its boulder field of soft-boiled quail eggs cut in halves.
Yes, I found myself wishing, when I bit into one egg half that had baked into a rubbery state, that the quail eggs had just been broken raw over the surface of the pie and left to cook along with everything else. But the sharp herbal twinge of lemongrass that leapt out of the background struck me as pure genius — and it tasted like my subtropical home, where a pot of lemongrass is always growing out by the garage.
Think of the pizzas here as graceful flatbreads. Or order one naked, for the sum of four bucks, to dip into herbed olive oil as an appetizer, or as an accompaniment to one of Mosquera’s beloved cheese courses. There are eight of those, including super creamy Mt. Tam from the great Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, Calif.; or my Vermont-girl favorite, Cabot clothbound cheddar. They are served in whomping portions, often with a honey component: on the comb, or dripping from a wooden stir stick.
One of the most interesting is a Spanish unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, Idiazabal, which Mosquera smokes and serves warm, so that its hard-crumbly texture goes half-soft. Served with herb branches and its own singed chunk of cedar, the smoked Idiazabal is enough for three or four people to share.
Sharing is part of the deal at Roots Bistro, where the menu format is unconventional. In the restaurant’s early months, Mosquera was changing the menu every day. As fall sets in, he has reconfigured it into a dozen or so shareable plates, the aforementioned cheese courses, a half-dozen pizzas and four frequently rotating “big plates” — a meat, a fish, a fowl and a smoked foie gras — which are the size of conventional entrees but can be split by diners determined to graze. At the end come three desserts.
The format may take some getting used to, but the smart and unusually nice staff will help you figure out what works, and the initial experimentation can be fun. I was captivated by some beautifully singed okra pods with a dark, mysterious chive purée and an unexpected sweet note from ribbons of agave glaze. Along with my mushroom brioche biscuits, that made a meal, etched out with a glass of lilting, edgy Verdejo from sommelier Jay Dillard’s interesting and sensibly priced wine list.
About that list: it’s one of the chief pleasures of dining at Roots Bistro, right along with the warm, comfortable room with its pretty lighting and dramatic glass vases, each holding a single massive stem of split-leaf philodendron. Roots Bistro is very much a package, and a useful one, with an adjacent juice bar that’s open in the mornings for breakfast, and a welcoming upfront lounge that, to my mind, is one of the best restaurant wine bars in town.
Talk to Dillard and see what he’s pouring. It might be a surprising, pleasantly austere Patagonian Extra Brut by Humberto Canale at $25 a bottle; or a crazy little apple ice wine cocktail from Quebec; or mineral-shot Yunquera Albillo, a food-friendly white from Spain that has recently found its way into the market here, at a reasonable price of $27 or $8 the glass. Want red? Try an elegant pinot noir from Patagonia, the 2008 Primogenito, with hints of resinous herbs and a bottle price of $40.
My sole caveat about Mosquera’s food is that, occasionally, his love for sweet/savory contrasts seems to get away from him, and a dish (or a meal) can slant too much toward the sweet.
These sweet touches can work well, as in a crimson wash of lingonberry sauce at the end of a plate of wild sea beans, the twiggy stems stacked into a bristly thatch with oyster mushrooms and piercing fronds of mint marigold, the herb known as “Texas tarragon.” Somehow the slight saltiness of the soaked sea beans, the sharp herbs and meaty mushrooms balance the sweet-tart berries, so that the whole thing tastes like a walk through a Texo-Scandinavian forest.
And yet, a similar wash of syrupy currant glaze with a fish of the day — a tall knob of Gulf golden tile — seemed to fight with the fish, which had been beautifully poached and then crisped in the wood-burning oven. A curious garnish of smoked pale cheese curds added to the dissonance.
I’m still puzzling, too, over the powerful sweetness and fierce twang of heat in a kale salad, the greens chewy rather than crisp, and little piles of seasoned lentils seemingly just along for the ride.
It’s a ride I’ll stay on, metaphorically speaking, if I can get to dishes such as the shimmeringly deep, pure lobster bisque that materialized as a nightly special recently. It was a soup that would have done credit to the most ambitious French restaurant in town.
The lobster meat from that day’s New England shellfish haul ended up in hunks as soft as silk, perched on a subtle white-squash purée barely touched with truffle. It was fabulous stuff, and a kale-wrapped “sausage” of snapper mousse hiding more lobster nuggets wrote a surprise finish.
Dishes like that seem designed to bring in the omnivorous food-obsessed crowd, while such
ideas as a sweet potato “risotto” (there are those air quotes again) seem aimed at the vegetarian and vegan-health crowd. I admired the discipline of the meticulously chopped sweet potato and mushroom hash piled in a bowl, and its binding of woodsy porcini mushroom cream. But after three or four bites, I had had enough. My dining companion, on the other hand, swore she’d be happy to eat it for breakfast every day.
That’s why Roots Bistro is so unusual for Houston. In upscale but casual surroundings, all kinds of diners, with all kinds of motives, can enjoy themselves for all kinds of different reasons.
Some of those reasons are universal. Like the wonderful wood-roasted mac-and-cheese skillets that Mosquera makes with various interesting cheeses: a Mimolette one day; a nutty Alpine Tomme the next. And the pasta? Believe it or not, it’s made from quinoa grains that he grinds himself. It’s as good as any macaroni I’ve ever tasted.
Even the sweets here have personal twists. Mosquera might add, at the last minute, a pear-absinth sorbet to his pastry chef’s chocolate cake enriched with avocado (not the stretch that it sounds, since avocados are a source of lush fats that can substitute for butter). Then a crackle of quinoa brittle might go on top.
Is it good for you? It sure doesn’t taste like it. And you are guaranteed to go home thinking about it, which is the best dessert of all.
Roots Bistro: 507 Westheimer, 713-524-1000
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday
Prices: starters & smaller plates $9-$17; pizzas $16-$18; entrees $21-$32; desserts $9-$10
Reservations: walk-ins welcome
Noise level: quiet to moderate
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.