15-second review: No-frills menu verging on ambition ... thrown-together and ragtag, somehow works ... favorites include chicken liver pate, duck leg confit, burger.
Come year's end, I'll review 150 pages of restaurant notes typewritten during the last year, and almost certainly, Rootstock's duck leg confit will be among my favorite dishes of 2011.
The centerpiece is a Gunthorp Farms duck leg cooked in its rendered fat, meat unctuous and tender enough to nudge away with the fork's tines. Finished in an oven, the skin bears a dry crackled crispness that rivals roast pork hanging in Cantonese barbecue storefronts.
Every element on the plate has a reason for being — to pair with and play off a contrasting flavor and texture. Sweet charred corn with goat cheese, summer peaches and green-tasting pea tendrils, duck skin crunching against luscious potato puree. If not for the corn and peaches' seasonality, this could become a signature item ($12) for the West Town restaurant.
Discovering the dish was something of a happy accident. We had plans to dine at another restaurant, but decided at the last minute to grab drinks instead. Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar, run by three veterans of Webster's Wine Bar, sounded like a pleasant place to imbibe. Then we arrived and were delighted to find a menu composed through Midwest lenses, employing the seasonal, farm-sourced sensibility de rigueur at every new restaurant from here to Vie. What's more, it was the first night duck confit was on the menu.
Rootstock draws comparison to Pilsen's Nightwood, opened around the same time in 2009. Both are housed in neighborhoods not considered destinations for high-end grub seekers. Both kitchens are headed by Lula Cafe alumni who brought Lula's menu philosophy to their new restaurants.
But whereas Nightwood's space is sprawling and polished, Rootstock charms in ragtag ways. It feels like dinner party hosts misjudged the guest count, so an hour before the guests' arrival the hosts pushed the arm chair and ottoman together, borrowed the neighbor's table and rounded up silverware and china that don't quite match. Yet somehow, cobbled and stitched by design in its admittedly imperfect ways, it works.
Its success in a fine-dining desert — walk to Humboldt Park in five minutes — might be attributed to two things: the kitchen is open until 1 a.m., and the compact, no-filler menu is (usually) never more than $13 a dish. It occupies that midlevel between small plates and Hungry Man dinners. California Avenue isn't high on the list of al fresco dining spots, yet here diners were on a Monday night, sipping Chenin Blanc with the No. 52 bus blowing by. When the bar first opened in May 2009, it focused on beverages, a higher-end alternative to the California Clipper lounge up the street. Then Rootstock's original chef took a job outside Chicago, and in stepped Duncan Biddulph a year ago. The menu was already expanding beyond noshes; they were importing meats from Benton's and La Quercia, plus making charcuterie in house ($6.50 each).
There's the terrific quenelle of chicken liver pate, arriving on a wooden slab from a wine bottle container. It's a cloud burst of buttery whipped parfait, a 4 on a 10-point liver-y scale, nestled with pink peppercorns that pop their crunchy, perfumed husk. Pig ear terrine was less successful — gelatinous and swinelike rubber bands with a bit too much barnyard funk.
Rootstock developed a minor reputation for its $11 cheeseburger, which I say is justified (every restaurant opened post-2008 is mandated to include a locally sourced beef burger). Here, the bun tops are grilled crisp with dark char marks, and the Swan Creek beef cooked medium rare takes on a creamy quality. It has the structural integrity of a Boston creme doughnut fresh from the fryer, the teeth encountering less resistance the deeper you reach toward the center. A slather of bacon aioli, raw red onions and cheddar make this your best burger bet within a 2-mile radius. The kitchen rolls out the parchment-paper-cone-in-a-glass presentation for its ace french fries ($5), lightly crisp, then collapsing into some velvet potato ideal.
The most revealing moment of the night-that-almost-wasn't came with the steelhead trout course (fancy name for rainbow trout). The fish is a dead ringer for salmon, only leaner, and its skin seared — once again — to peak crispness ($12). The trout sits in the center with radishes, summer squash, tomatoes and shell beans aesthetically strewn about, in a green soup base of rosemary aioli. The broth tasted of blue cheese, a flavor combination with fish that would get you blacklisted from most seaports. Two other diners tried this and also picked up the taste of blue cheese. But improbably, miraculously, its flavors meshed. Soon, bread-bearing hands from all directions were aiming square for that broth.
When I called Biddulph the next day, he concluded this may have been a mistake by a line cook, but was happy (relieved?) to hear it worked. Chalk it up to a happy accident.
Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar
954 N. California Ave., 773-292-1616, rootstockbar.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday (kitchen closes at 1 a.m.), 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday brunchCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun