- 1216 Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY
- Overall User Rating:
- (0 ratings)
- Monday-Thursday 11AM-10PM; Friday 11AM-11PM; Saturday 10AM-11PM; Sunday 10AM-8PM
Virtue — according to some sources — is its own reward. Anyone who’s ever fallen into the clutches of an evangelical hippie chef whose idea of virtuous food is a frozen tofu sundae dusted with powdered tofu and drizzled with carob syrup will tell you different.
Chef and restaurateur Huong “CoCo” Tran, owner of Zen Garden and the recently closed Zen Tea House, has long been Louisville’s most passionate exponent of virtuous vegetarian cuisine. And her menus have always been a reminder that virtue need not be its only reward; it can travel in the good company of exquisite flavors and lovely presentations.
With her new restaurant, Roots, which opened a few weeks ago. Tran has created a triumphant menu of festive, brightly colored, cunningly flavored food. It also happens to be vegetarian. I am told that Tran’s nephew, Michael Ton (Basa, Doc Crow’s) was a creative consultant on some of the dishes, and it’s clear that their creative partnership has culminated in a feast of small plates with lots of Asian twists and a few dashes of Mediterranean influence tossed in for good measure.
Roots (its sister restaurant, Heart & Soy, sits adjacent, but has a different mission that I’ll discuss in a future column) is bright and casual. Vivid photos of garden produce hang from taupe walls. Servers approach patrons with plenty of knowledge and a confident sense of mission.
And given the food they’re serving, they have every right to feel confident. Neatly stacked shavings of ginger-poached pear are sprinkled with bits of feta and mint, then touched every so lightly with a citrus vinaigrette to make a salad so simple in appearance that its delightful clash of textures confounds the palate ($6).
Hue, a soup that takes its name from the Vietnamese city, is ruddy red, its spicy broth carrying tender noodles, firm bits of mushroom and pieces of tofu. Once you stir in the pile of fresh cabbage, carrots and lettuce that comes on the side and squeeze the lime wedge over the top, you have a heavenly bowl that could easily serve as a full meal, even in the “small” portion ($5; large, $8). Other soup offerings feature udon noodles, wontons, butternut squash and such flavorings as red and green curry.
Most of the menu falls in a category of small plates called “Savories” that cry out for sharing with a party of explorers, as we did recently with friends James and Robin.
We marveled when braised beets submerged in pale yellow curry released their crimson liquid, creating sunset in a bowl (a sunset complemented by tender diced tomatoes, shallots, and a sprinkle of herbs ($6). Perfectly cooked white beans with cabbage, potatoes, and caramelized shallots had an elegant Tuscan simplicity ($5), while the most extravagant tofu dish I’ve ever tasted was Tran’s clay pot version, flavored with toothsome wild mushrooms and onions in a rich, mellow broth ($9).
There’s plenty here to enjoy, much of it driven by the harvest of the season: a wild mushroom and tomato pate ($8); crispy rolls ($6), steamed rolls ($8), and summer rolls stuffed with sautéed vegetables and Thai basil in a superb tamarind sauce ($7); a Vietnamese crepe ($6); and a flabbergasting pan-seared ravioli . Perhaps the visual star of our meal was a crispy potato nest — golden brown shreds of potato woven together to form the bowl — filled with bok choy, glistening green peas, yellow squash, carrots, and broccoli.
Roots is alcohol-free, but an extraordinary selection of teas, each served with a tiny hourglass timed for the specific brew, offers plenty of rewards and not a little virtue.