When you take one of the 16 reservation-only seats at Square Root, you won’t see knives or drops of sweat flying through the air.
You won’t hear vegetables being slaughtered, no screams for increased speed, no guttural belly laughs or congratulatory back slaps.
It’s eerily quiet, apart from the restaurant’s background soundtrack, which includes both Beastie Boys and B.B. King.
Four chefs are standing on a cloud of liquid nitrogen, as one could imagine God’s accountants, carefully taking note of everything in creation—each egg of ghost-pepper-infused catfish caviar, each sprig of amaranth, each slice of actual truffle.
The food at Square Root on Magazine Street is similar to what’s served at Root on Julia Street, Chef Phillip Lopez’s first restaurant.
The difference lies in pace and delivery. While Root has a regular a la carte set-up, Square Root only offers elaborate tasting dinners, whose length varies from eight-nine courses Tuesday-Thursday to 12-15 courses on Friday and Saturday—and only to 16 guests.
“When you open something like this, you have to start off small,” says Lopez. “You can’t just get on the top diving board and go right down. Something like this is very special, not only to New Orleans but to the South. There are only a handful of restaurants like this in the whole country. I want to make sure it’s survivable to get through the first opening purgatory stage. Every restaurant is like that, whether it’s a small sandwich shop or a restaurant like this. Word of mouth is so important and the surrounding community is so important. If we open a restaurant and don’t care what people in New Orleans think—only care about what people in New York and Chicago and San Francisco think—we wouldn’t be open very long. So I want to make sure the food we do is comforting, but also exploratory.”
In Lopez’s mind, New Orleans was always the culinary mecca of the United States.
He finds New Orleanians to be just as creative, passionate and forward-thinking as people in other major American cities, but generally receiving less credit.
He also describes the different ethnic groups he grew up around in his mother’s typesetting shop on Tulane Avenue: people who were part of the continuous flow of cultures through the giant funnel that was and is New Orleans, home to one of the largest ports in the country.
“The flavors we have at Root and Square Root are flavors that exist in this city and that have always existed here, but often get overshadowed by the Creole spice and the sauces,” says Lopez. “When we opened Root, it wasn’t going to be béarnaise and crab meat all over again. I knew that we were either going to be very successful, or we were going to be a complete failure. There wasn’t going to be anything in between. It was going to be a bipolar experience, because the food we do is extreme to the classic Creole, New Orleans palate. We were lucky, I think, because people wanted change; they wanted something new, something exciting. We took the tablecloths off.”
Lopez refuses to restrict his creativity to a certain genre, a specific method of preparation, or type of cuisine. Laughing a bit, he describes an interaction he recently had with a guest at Square Root:
“He said, ‘Chef, this was unbelievable, but I didn’t really get where the food was going. There was an Indian dish, a Japanese dish, there was a Mexican dish, so there was no theme.’ I was like, ‘You need a theme to this dinner experience?’ And he looked at me like, ‘Well, you don’t necessarily cook French food…’ ‘You’re right.’ ‘Well, are you an Italian chef? What kind of chef are you?!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know how to answer this question. I really don’t know. Please excuse my ignorance.’ And he was like, ‘What kind of food do you cook?’ And once again I was, ‘I don’t really know how to answer this question.’ He’s looking at me like, ‘This guy’s being an asshole now.’ But I wasn’t being an asshole! I just asked him, ‘What food do you like to eat?’ ‘Oh, that’s easy. I like to eat good food.’ ‘Well, that’s the kind of food I cook.’
“For us to be pigeonholed into a type of cuisine, a certain genre—I mean, come on,” continues Lopez. “We have Vietnamese influence, we have German influence, we have Italian influence, French. All these cultures exist here in New Orleans. We need to be a little bit more open to cooking more than one type of food. And then the guy says, ‘Yeah, makes sense, I guess. At least we’re going somewhere now…’”
Chef Lopez tries to balance his being “all over the place” with extreme discipline when it comes to the refinement of the dishes he creates. He changes the menu as much and as often as he can. One week, 60 percent of the menu will change. Next week, the other 40 percent.
“Once we feel that a dish is absolutely perfect, that’s when we take it off the menu,” explains Lopez. “Every day we refine each dish. We plate, ‘What needs to change?’ And it’s not just me—everyone involved here is just as much a part of this food as I am. We bounce ideas off of each other. It might not always be the best ideas in the world, but it helps to have people to pull and push with, in terms of creativity.”
One of the most popular dishes at Root is the cigar-smoked scallops. Lopez is constantly threatening to take them off the menu, continuously being pushed back by the servers and the staff. Chef suddenly appears uneasy, changing positions and stretching his fingers when discussing the idea of leaving a dish he’s created on the menu forever.
“Never,” he swears. “My mind is about change. I can’t sleep if I don’t learn or change something every day. It’s a gift and a curse.”
By refusing to serve bread in both his restaurants, and simply removing the option of filling up on something that’s familiar and comforting, Lopez hopes to nudge guests to explore more of what only Root and Square Root have to offer, increasing locals’ appetites for new experiences.
Around the country, there’s an argument going around about the no-menu, reservation-only chef’s tasting restaurants, about how it’s a totalitarian, egotistical way of dining because the diner doesn’t get to choose. But it’s not really the chef’s way or no way, says Lopez:
“We don’t say no—if somebody comes in and has a dietary restriction or an allergy or just don’t like a certain thing, we’ll never tell them no. If we can’t create a dish based on someone’s likes or wants, then what’s our worth? It’s so much easier to say, ‘No, sorry. If you don’t like pork, go fuck yourself, get out of my restaurant.’ We can’t do that. For one, this is the South, and you can’t do that in the South. And secondly, I don’t think you should be doing that period. It’s our job to go far beyond. It’s our job to please. You can invest so much money in the best equipment, all these fancy things, but if the food doesn’t taste good, all you have is expensive shit on a plate.”