If you’re a vegetarian who’s been pining for a nice local restaurant where you can get fancy meatless fare in an upscale setting, then your dream has come true. If you’re a guilty carnivore who claims you’d go vegetarian if only some place served meatless dishes so good that you wouldn’t even miss meat, look out. This may be put-up or shut-up time for you. And if you’re an unapologetic meat-eater who thinks vegetarian fare can only be bland and prissy, get ready to have your prejudices challenged, if you’re brave enough to try it.
Welcome Roots, and its more casual sister eatery Heart & Soy, now open side-by-side in the space that once housed The Egg Roll Machine until a fire took it out more than two years ago. The sibling restaurants are owned and operated by Huong “CoCo” Tran, who introduced Vietnamese cuisine to Louisville in her Café Mimosa some 25 years ago, more recently the welcoming hostess of Zen Garden and Zen Tea House on Frankfort Avenue. (Zen Tea House, sadly, has closed to make way for Roots and Heart & Soy, but Zen Garden carries on.)
Tran lives out her commitment to Zen Buddhism and its humane principles by offering only vegetarian fare. In fact, it’s largely vegan, although a few of the 40-some dishes on Roots’ extensive menu incorporate animal products such as feta or Boursin cheese.
We dropped in on Roots’ “soft opening” on a recent Saturday, a practice I generally avoid in order to maintain a low profile, but Tran has known Mary and me since the ’80s and knows I don’t cut friends any slack, so we felt comfortable dropping by for a first-night taste. The flavors were outstanding, service smooth, and then — BANG! — the Aug. 13 thunderstorm smacked the Highlands with the back of its hand and all the lights went out.
This would be a serious full-load stress test for the kitchen and front-of-the-house crew, and it was amazing to watch them cope. Diners took advantage of light from the big front windows as the skies cleared, and battery-powered emergency lights cast an eerie glow over the rear half of the long, narrow rooms. In the windowless kitchen, I’m told, the multilingual crew of Chinese and Vietnamese chefs toiled over gas ranges under battery lights as the temperature rose toward 120 degrees.
After the short, violent storm passed, they folded open the front windows to let the cool air in, and it was a pleasant evening after all. The power stayed off, and service certainly slowed down a little, but the dishes kept on coming and everyone was patient.
The Roots side is Zen-like in its classy simplicity — grays and earth tones, heavy wood tables and attractive chairs. Mural-size photos of root vegetables — carrots, radishes and more — reinforce the restaurant’s theme.
Many of the dishes use soybean-based tofu in various forms, and it’s all freshly made on the premises in a glass-walled room filled with shiny metal equipment in clear view on the Heart & Soy side. The machinery came from Taiwan, and Tran said with a laugh that she had to bring in a Chinese friend to read the instructions. It all worked out, the house-made tofu, chameleon-like, playing a variety of roles in the bill of fare.
Everything comes on small plates, and it’s all under $10 per plate, making it easy to graze and nosh to your heart’s content, trying a lot of dishes without running up the tab. Dishes are Asian-accented, to be sure, but international in scope, with flavors that evoke East Asia, India, Italy (ravioli, anyone?), the Caribbean and the Americas. The Heart & Soy side of the restaurant features a shorter, even more affordable list of Asian street food, including noodle dishes, fried rice, a Vietnamese sandwich ($4) and lots more.
It’s hard to name favorites among dishes so good, but we were certainly happy with the crispy potato nest ($9), a plate-size shallow basket woven from potato strips and deep-fried, then loaded with perfectly stir-fried bites of Chinese cabbage, snow peas, bell peppers, onions and strips of smoked tofu coated with a tart-sweet soy and sesame glaze. Just as good and surprisingly filling was a Japanese eggplant dish ($9) cooked with strips of “meaty” pressed tofu, onions and julienne carrots in a creamy coconut milk curry.
Summer rolls ($6) showed the bright colors of tomato and avocado through their translucent, crisp-fried skins. A Thai-style green papaya salad ($6) featured a finely julienned strip of tart green papaya, shallots, carrot, firm tofu and crisp apple with cress-like paddy herbs and chopped peanuts in a hot-sweet vinaigrette, flanked with crunchy rice crackers.
Desserts? Sure! A caramel espresso gelato with bittersweet chocolate was as good as Comfy Cow. Sweet tofu pudding with a wild ginger glaze was silken and a bit esoteric, but hey, I like tofu.
Roots and Heart & Soy. Go. Soon. You don’t have to be vegetarian to love it.
Roots • Heart & Soy
1216 Bardstown Road
452-6688 • 452-6678
Unrated: Soft opening review