The Root in White Lake

In an era dominated by predictable menus and cookie-cutter restaurants, the Root Restaurant & Bar in White Lake is a refreshing oasis of real food — a place rooted, as it were, in regionally sourced ingredients and obsessed with from-scratch cooking.

From the fresh-squeezed juices in the bar’s hand-crafted cocktails to the smoked bacon and golden bun of the grass-fed-beef hamburger to the tender crust of the pies du jour, executive chef James Rigato’s kitchen makes it all.

“I’m cruel to my staff in how from-scratch we are,” he jokes. “If I could process my own salt, I would.”

Rigato sources as many ingredients as possible from Michigan farms, orchards, dairies, cheese makers and others. He draws inspiration from California chefs and others who have succeeded being “in tune with the food around them.”

Don’t assume, though, that he and owner Ed Mamou designed the Root for food snobs or special-occasion dining

Yes, Rigato’s seasonal American menu is rich with sophisticated, complex dishes like his beautiful pan-seared scallops appetizer with brown butter, grapefruit segments, capers and pistachios on white bean puree.

But there’s also that irresistible hamburger, served with golden hand-cut fries, and a gourmet-level fried bologna sandwich made with meat from C. Roy Inc. in Yale, home of the Yale Bologna Festival.

Rigato stacks firm, thick slices — far richer in flavor and color than mass-market b-o-l-o-g-n-a — in a house-baked bun with lettuce, ripe tomato and an addictive green chile mustard and serves it with his hand-cut fries for $8.

He put it on the menu to underscore Root’s lack of pretense, he says, and “to cement us as a food-driven, fun restaurant.”

But it’s also a salute to the Roy company, which Rigato calls “the backbone” of his menu. The company processes only Michigan farm-raised animals and provides Root with all its pork and grass-fed beef.

The pork anchors one of the menu’s best dishes — fork-tender shoulder braised in Spicer Orchards’ cider, set atop a square of smoked cheddar grits in a pool of delicately flavored cider gravy and topped with a spoonful of crisp, sweet-tart green-apple salsa verde. The fine mince of raw apple and green tomatillo brings acid and texture to balance the smooth, mildly sweet cider sauce.

Don’t underestimate the Miller Farms roasted chicken. This bird’s juicy meat and savory flavors are a reminder of how delicious chicken can be. The bronzed half-bird is served over a robust risotto with housemade chorizo, roasted mushrooms and Swiss chard.

The chicken was more interesting than the subtle Lake Superior whitefish, served on a bed of white beans and green chile, topped with charred corn and diced vegetables, and accompanied by spoonfuls of smoked-tomato vinaigrette. Despite its many ingredients, the dish didn’t sparkle.

And I didn’t expect such heaviness in the green tomato-caramelized onion tart, served with tasty wholegrain farro, arugula salad and balsamic syrup.

More to my liking was the delicate, hand-made potato gnocchi and braised greens in a bright, light, Bolognese sauce. My serving contained almost more greens than gnocchi, but the flavors were wonderful.

Among several good starters, the aforementioned scallops are a standout. Other good choices are the extrachunky crab cakes with sweet, fresh mango-poblano salsa and avocado mousse; and a flavorful poached pear salad with greens from Gass Centennial Farm, Michigan blue cheese and house-made bacon.

Desserts are easily worth the calories. Among them, try the dreamy dark chocolate pudding cake served warm with blackberry jam and Guernsey Farms whipped cream, lemon-and-lavender crème brulée, and the decadent peanut-butter-cup pie with chocolate ganache, crushed peanuts and chocolate crumb crust.

But first, you have to find the place. Most guests don’t expect to see restaurants like this in suburban shopping strips — or for that matter, in small towns like White Lake, 15 miles northwest of Pontiac. But there it is — just off M-59 in Village Lake Plaza, near JCPenney, Kroger and Kmart.

Inside, the spacious and inviting bar, open kitchen, warm woods, vibrant green accents and lush food photography set the perfect tone for the farm-to-table cuisine.

The best seats in the house are those at the high tables in the bar, along a low wall topped by a line of tall, thin, close-set twigs. From there, guests can keep an eye on the lively bar, watch Rigato and his staff in the kitchen, or peek through the twiggy fence to check out the eclectic crowd in the main dining areas.

Root opened at the end of May, but it grew out of a business relationship that began more than four years ago, when Mamou hired Rigato as a personal chef to prepare meals for business meetings at his family’s company headquarters in Royal Oak. The two launched a catering company, Ripe, which soon evolved into the idea of a restaurant.

Open just 2 1/2 months, their new venture is taking root as an exciting new dining destination — the kind of promising, ambitious restaurant metro Detroit food-lovers crave but too seldom see these days. Put White Lake into your GPS and check it out.

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