Ignoring the more dastardly implications of the forthcoming sentiment, I’d confidently tell any grumpy Confederate secessionist to consider the prevalence of Southern-revivalist cooking in New York as a consolation, a battle won in the culture wars (time to let that other one go). Grease-stained city slickers have been devouring barbecue, fried chicken, biscuits, and latticed pies with enthusiasm for the last several years, and, given their nature (salty, sweet, fatty … addictive), we probably won’t stop anytime soon. Now, Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth — two former Top Chef contestants who found forbidden love on the other side of a release form — have carved out a homey, East Village space for Root & Bone, their modern take on the regional Southern cooking that Mr. McInnis ate growing up in northern Florida.
They packed their knives for New York a year ago after McInnis split from 50 Eggs Inc., the parent company of Yardbird restaurant, where he’d garnered acclaim for his refined, rural cuisine as executive chef and partner since 2011. But in a move fit for reality TV, the chef’s ex-wife publicly besmirched the pair for eloping to start a new life together up North, although the exodus was prompted by a noncompete clause preventing Mr. McInnis from replicating any 50 Eggs concepts in Miami.
To build momentum for their Big Apple debut, the runaway lovebirds held a series of weekend pop-ups at Greenpoint’s Brew Inn last November. A number of dishes, like shrimp and grits, made the jump to the final menu, though a blessedly crowded charcuterie board heaped with country hams, sausage, and herb-cured cheese curds, sadly did not. Its absence is felt when looking for something to pair with the restaurant’s selection of 40 whiskeys or six draught beers, whose taps are fashioned from both real and fake animal bones. Stacked china sets and decorative bookshelves reinforce the homespun vibe.
Root & Bone inhabits a prominent Alphabet City address that had a 15-year run as Mama’s Food Shop, an affordable, vegan-friendly, soul food restaurant that stood as a testament to the neighborhood’s counterculture past. The place is no bargain, but prices don’t warrant griping when many dishes are large enough to share. One item worth hoarding for yourself: McInnis’s angel biscuits. Impossibly light yet as buttery and flaky as any baked good we’ve sampled, they’re served with a cup of honey-sweetened chicken jus that’s nearly as aromatic as gravy, and a tiny mound of sesame salt for sprinkling. They’re biscuits fully realized — revelatory when compared with a plate of ordinary cornbread covered in clotted cream and fruit preserves. Also listed in the bread section, a towering, fried chicken — and-waffle sandwich, which finds architectural and gastronomic balance between pickled green tomato, watercress, and maple syrup.
The bird’s the word here — a whole eight-piece fried chicken costs $32 and feeds four as a meal (without sides). Twenty-seven hours’ brining in sweet tea lends the meat a sugary background note, its greaseless crust dusted with dehydrated lemon powder, the perfect foil for all that crackled fat. Sprinkle droplets of Tabasco honey over the top, or pair it with cheddar waffles and whiskey-spiked maple syrup, which ups the price to $46. Individual pieces are also available ($3 drumsticks, $4 thighs, and $6 breasts) for diners who don’t want to go all in on a whole bird. I’d also recommend placing a fried-chicken takeout order immediately after putting your name down, because currently, Root & Bone is a very busy place. Waits on our visits ranged from 40 minutes for a two top (in reality, two seats at the four-seat bar) to more than two hours for a table for five during prime time.
The bulk of the menu is padded with salads, sides, and small plates that offer no indication of size, but peach “caprese” yields particularly bountiful returns. Grilled fruit is rendered candy-sweet against heirloom tomatoes, basil, molasses vinegar, and a fistful of fried pimento cheese, which stands up to the dish’s sour ingredients better than mozzarella ever could. The kitchen also quadruples down on corn and wins with wheels of chopped cob surrounded by soft hominy, crunchy popcorn, and repurposed cornbread turned into a spreadable puree like a celiac-friendly, savory Speculoos. Beer adds a malty slap to “skrimp & grits,” a main course of snappy gulf shrimp sautéed with chewy shreds of Edwards Virginia country ham and organized around a thick hillock of chunky, creamy corn porridge. Braised brisket and short rib fuse together to form the restaurant’s righteous neo-meatloaf. Nestled into a pool of velvety parsnip puree, it approaches the unctuousness and funk of dry-aged beef.
For lighter eaters, though, Root & Bone can be a gamble. A market catch (salmon, in our case) with excellent succotash bore crispy skin but was a hair overdone, while columns of Waldorf-inspired blue crab salad wrapped in thinly sliced green apple tasted fresh and briny despite an overwrought presentation. The only flat-out miss was a plate of undercooked ricotta gnudi doused in celery root sauce, which had deflated and congealed into a single, soupy mass.
Desserts are the work of Floridian Crystal Cullison. They’re recited, not written down, and they’re somewhat of a toss-up as well. Parsnip adds just enough dimension to keep the carrot cake interesting, and jarred banana cream pie fares better than slightly dry coconut cake. All three pale in comparison to Cullison’s dense Mississippi mud pie with cherries and beet sorbet. Bluegrass music hums in the background, and a neighboring table discusses beer pong strategy, but the conference of crimson produce and rich chocolate couldn’t be more buttoned-up. Grandma can leave her pies on the windowsill — in fact, tell Grandma she can sit this one out.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2014