One of my companions on the visit to Roots Kitchen Bar is very quick to nail the vibe of the place. ‘It’s very Shoreditch,’ he says. And he’s right, in several ways. The interior is ‘well-worn’ concrete, baring the brickwork beneath in places. The bar is concrete with Peranakan tiles. Even the location fits, reasonably; we are on the east stretch of Dickson Road, on the fringe of the tumult and noise and scents of a thriving Indian area.
And no doubt the vibe is completely intended by Roots, if their website is any indication. They salute the hungry, which is fair enough for a restaurateur. But they also salute ‘the verge hipsters’, which goes right over my unbearded head. (Is verge an adjective now? What does it mean?) Also, I heartily dislike Shoreditch and the aesthetic. I can only imagine the look on the face of the worker who laid all the concrete on two days ago, and is now being told to chip part of that concrete off the bricks. Let’s hope he wasn’t asked to do it in an ‘ironic, vintage way’.
But surely, you may ask, I already figured that much just by looking at the website. They’ve got photos of the interior and everything. Why go at all, then? At which I point to the pals, a lovely couple who are taking the place far more in its intended spirit, sipping Chardonnay while poring over the menu. They’re liking it. Dear Babette, after all, is for the benefit of readers like them (and you), not for me to be curmudgeonly and correct about everything. So it is incumbent on me to at least try it, and if need be to stand corrected.
Well, okay, the other reason is that I am craving a little drink, and Roots has a pretty good list of liquid bread. Imperial Russian Stout was first made in 18th century England for export to the Russian imperial court, and as befits a beer made for a nation of vodka drinkers, the Konrad’s stout from Sweden is quite strong at 10.4%. There’s nothing brutish about the flavour, though; instead it is smooth and sustained, tasting of malt, a little chocolate, and tailing off almost like dark soy sauce without the salt.
To start, we get the loaded sweet potato fries, which sounds like another attempt to shoehorn an ‘Asian’ ingredient into a dish. Another issue is that the ‘crumble feta’ doesn’t seem to be present – the cheese that oozes and lazes on the sweet potato fries tastes and smells more like cheddar, with granules of what may be feta embedded within. But it’s not like cheddar and sweet potato fries make a poor combination. The chips are properly done and just mildly sweet; stewed pork is moist and tender, but there’s too little of it to stand out among the cheese. It is a good dish spoiled by the breathless promises on the menu.
After the initial stumble, though, the mains at Roots regain the groove easily. A substantial fillet of seabass is properly grilled, the skin slightly short of crisp but suffused with fish fats; the flesh is also well timed, flaking easily. It rests on a bed of vegetables and seafood that a zi char chef would be familiar with, except daintier, diced into little morsels of springy prawns and calamari and celery chevrons. As a combination of fresh, light flavours it does very well, with an interesting suggestion of coconut in the gravy.
Their London Broil is also a pretty good steak, pink-hearted and well-charred, but the unanimous favourite among the mains is also the least pricey option. It’s a tweaked carbonara – the egg poached on top instead of being tumbled with the sauce, for instance – and is very well executed, the linguine al dente, the sauce even and smooth and packed with pancetta’s salt and grease. But the winning touch is in the little puffs of browned cauliflower, that give a rounding sweetness and another sort of crunch.
Desserts look a lot more focused on plating than the mains, as with the curd and ice cream sandwich that the pals order. Curd of lemon and passionfruit is an inspired combination, the same sourness resolving in two different ways, and the ice cream sandwiches – a page out of the books of Singapore’s scooter-riding ice cream vendors, perhaps – are also pleasant. The two have little common ground besides the plate they’re both on, though. If you’re being positive you may consider it like having two desserts at once, and I’ve had enough Imperial Stout by then to go along with that.
My banana-Bailey dessert, on the other hand, is a much better-fitting medley, probably since bread pudding is generally an easygoing food. Golden and full of egg and banana, two slices of the pudding have plenty of richness to be dressed with walnuts, nutella and the dollop of Bailey’s cream, which is every bit as soothing as it is intended to be. That its sweetness has been covered by that of the bread pudding is actually a nice touch, bringing out the bitter notes in the Bailey’s.
So, strange enough as it is for a hipster-oriented place, Roots turns out to be a lot better than it looks. The energy of a newly opened joint is displayed to full advantage – on one hand there is the effort put into the concepts of each dish, into small and unexpected twists, while on the other there is the assured execution to pull it off properly. This despite the sometimes breathless description of their signature dishes on their website, and the decor. Then again, who am I to talk? The market rules us all, and the market seems to like Roots; the weekday dinner service sees a steady flow of customers. Good on them; I do hope it lasts. They’ve got plenty of potential.
Roots Kitchen Bar
30 Dickson Road (map)
Hours: Daily, 11am – 11pm; Closed on Tuesdays