The gleaming chef's table at Square Root — Photo courtesy of Square Root
When it comes to food, or most other things for that matter, New Orleans is sometimes slow to embrace change - which obviously doesn’t scare Chef Phillip Lopez one bit.
Square Root, located in the lower Garden District on Magazine, is essentially a 16-seat chef’s table that crosses the theater of a la minute real-time preparation with the science-meets-Escoffier of molecular gastronomy. There’s nothing else like it in New Orleans. The closest might be The Catbird Seat in Nashville, but foodies may be reminded of Alinea in Chicago or Mini Bar in D.C. from Jose Andres, all places of avant-garde cooking that meets at the intersection of art and science.
The chef, who was born in New Orleans but traveled the world as an army brat, has cooked in some of the finest kitchens, working with John Besh at Restaurant August and Michel Richard at Citronelle in D.C., where he landed after Katrina. Nine months later, he was back with Besh, but always with the notion of having his own place. When he opened his first restaurant Root in 2011, the idea was to push boundaries, both of Southern and New Orleans cuisine.
“I think a chef has to be evolutionary, even revolutionary, and cook from the heart,” says Lopez.
With the April 2014 opening of Square Root, he’s put himself out there, big time. During the week, diners pay $95, which includes tax and service charge, for a nine-course chef’s tasting menu. On the weekends, it’s $150 for 12 to 15 courses, with the menu changing weekly. The menu is always a surprise, with the cadre of chefs performing culinary alchemy right under your nose.
Is New Orleans ready for Square Root?
"New Orleans has always been a culinary capital,” says Lopez. “But we’re historically not as progressive as L.A. or Chicago. We’re the city of 100 restaurants and only one menu. But Katrina changed that. It’s like the Wild West out there. I think before Katrina, chefs and entrepreneurs had a fear of change. Now we embrace it. Now you can be whatever you want to be outside of the norm.”
Lopez admits that the price point may scare some locals off.
“No one has attempted to do this here. We’ll either be a complete success or a huge failure - nothing in between,” he adds.
Petrified wild greens include young pea puree and pickled cilantro stems — Photo courtesy of Square Root
Even if you don’t always know exactly what roasted coco caraway gravel refers to on your gorgeously composed plate – liquid nitrogen frequently creates a cloud of mystery around ingredients being foamed, frozen and turned into dust – the flavors are flat out delicious.
In fact, the experience of dining at Square Root is surprisingly accessible. The place is modern, sleek and comfortable, with Lopez a charming host. He shares back-stories of the inspiration for dishes like Southern Picnic on a plate, a morsel of fried chicken paired with pickled fried okra and fermented mustard seeds. Although he loves the fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House, this dish pays tribute to Gus’ World Famous Hot and Spicy Chicken in downtown Memphis.
Lopez may riff on traditional eggs Sardou, topping a spinach tarragon gazpacho with a warm duck egg yoke spiced with coriander and topped with freshly shaved black truffle. For dessert, you might munch on a frozen almond macaroon with egg yolk caramel ice cream and crispy milk bits.
It’s an experience, for sure, best enjoyed expertly paired with wines, craft beer or cocktails. (Wine pairings start at $65.) And while it’s not for everybody – steak and potato types won’t be pleased, and the price can inspire sticker shock - Square Root is a must-try for anybody interested in cuisine that pushes limits.
After or before dinner, head upstairs to Root Squared, an outstanding cocktail bar that offers outside balcony seating and a $4 to $15 menu of housemade charcuterie, artisanal cheeses and snacks that is guaranteed to keep the locals coming back for more.