Restorative Dining Goes On The Road
Lisa Cope - 29th October 2019
What’s the story?
Roots is a pop up partnership between chef Keith Coleman and partner Aisling McHugh, and while this is a once over with a difference, in that they're nomadic so we can't give you an address, Roots is something you should know about, and will feel better for having been a part of.
The couple moved home from New Zealand five years ago with designs on opening their own place, but high rents coupled with demand, as well as the somewhat new phenomenon of 'key money' put paid to that, so they ended up working in some of the city's best cafés, like The Fumbally and Bibi's, before being offered the opportunity to run Fia in Rathgar, with Keith in the kitchen and Aisling front of house. Fia almost immediately became one of the city's most sought after brunch spots, with weekend queues that were the stuff of legend, but it was when Keith started his Roots Pop Ups that people started talking about his food instead of Fia's.
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What's good to eat?
With their pop ups we imagine it will be usually a case of putting yourself in their hands for a no choice tasting menu, and these are very good hands to be in. Their initial description of "some individual snacks followed by a sharing main course and a dessert" was massively over-delivered on, and one look at the menu up on the wall had all kinds of excitement running through the room. The couple came out at the beginning to talk everyone through the dishes, and explain that a lot of the vegetables were only picked that morning - it's hard to imagine a more idyllic set up for a vegetable based pop up than the farm the vegetables were picked on.
First out were rosa radishes with a green tomato emulsion made from tomatoes that hadn't ripened and Irish rapeseed oil. With these came char-grilled cucumbers filled with pumpkin seed miso, and Keith Coleman must be one of the only people in the country who can make hot cucumbers taste good. After this came burnt leeks with leek top mayo, from which there is no going back. This was peak leek, and the perfect illustration of what happens when sensible use of seasonal produce meets someone who seems to have a natural gift for creating maximum flavour from minimal ingredients.
The other sides were flower sprouts (a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale) with fermented black garlic, which were chewy, sticky, flavour-filled mouthfuls, and Orla potatoes dripping in what tasted like butter and herbs, which are baby potatoes somewhere between waxy and floury, and which seem to have the best qualities of each. Every vegetable was prepared relatively simply, using one or two other ingredients max, yet they tasted like the best possible versions of themselves. That's what serious kitchen talent can do.
What's the venue like?
McNally Family Farm is our favourite place in Dublin to go vegetable shopping, and the sheer amount of organic produce they manage to grow in an Irish climate is mind-boggling. If you haven't been we'd really recommend a Friday or Saturday trip to their farm shop and newly opened café. Keith and Aisling have been working on the farm recently learning about everything that grows there, so the recently renovated barn seemed like the perfect place to do it.
Thick slices of Scéal sourdough followed with lovage butter (all aboard the lovage train), and then a borscht-like beetroot soup with horseradish cream and fennel flowers for a kick of aniseed as it went down. This was fresh horseradish grown on the farm in case you were imagining a jar of Coleman's, and it was a delicate, silky bowl of warmth, sweetness and general soothing.
The first pop-up was in 2017 with Cúan Greene (now head chef at Bastible) who was home from Noma in Copenhagen for a stint before heading to Mexico to launch the infamous Noma pop-up in Tulum. The next was with Eric Hellig (formerly of Heron & Grey, now Liath), then came one in Bibi's with friend and ex-Momofuku chef Joshua Plunkett. Last year Keith and Joshua popped up again in Green Man Wines in Terenure, with Keith staying on to do a residency. Just before he was due to move on, Catherine Cleary reviewed the wine bar turned restaurant in the Irish Times giving it 9.5/10 and saying, "we’ve waited a long time for someone to bring wine lovers and food lovers together over plates of brilliantly creative food in a casual friendly place." That day the Terenure wine bar booked out for weeks.
So what's happening now?
In August this year the Keith and Aisling officially launched 'Roots' as a travelling food concept, hosting intimate pop-up dinners across Ireland. They recently moved from Dublin to Slane, and harbour a dream of opening a destination guest house, organic farm and bakery in the future - we wait in hope for that one - but in the meantime we'd been very jealous of the feedback from a dinner series they did in the Hang Tough gallery in Portobello at the end of the summer, so when we heard their next pop up was going to be Sunday lunch at McNally Family Farm in North County Dublin we jumped on the tickets - and got the last two.
After this came the main affair of lamb rump with blackberry and elderberry. The meat tasted like it was fresh from a summer barbecue, almost making us forget we were in a converted farm barn in October in 6 degrees celsius (there's heaters, it's fine), and was covered in the most intense, thick berry sauce, like Michelin-starred ketchup. Sweet + smoke = happiness. This came with four sides, including cold slices of kolhrabi marinated with dandelion, which was almost like a palate cleanser between bites of everything else, and char-grilled cauliflower with a Drumlin cheese and beer sauce - which was exactly as good as you're imagining it to be.
Dessert was a whipped lightly minted cream over cape gooseberries with honeycomb (from the farm's beehives), an elegant and thankfully light end to a Sunday feast - barring much honeycomb stuck in teeth but that comes with the territory.
What about the drinks?
For the moment their pop ups are likely to be BYO unless the venue has an alcohol licence, so we took a bottle of Judith Beck 'Ink', an Austrian blend of Zweigelt and St Laurent (available in Green Man Wines and Loose Canon) which was pretty dreamy with the lamb - and the cold weather. Aisling had also made cordials/juices including sorrel and mint, hawberry and rose geranium and blackberry, thyme and juniper, which were all lovely to alternate with, and a bonus for the drivers.
And the service?
On their website Aisling and Keith describe Roots as "an experience where our guests feel like they’re at home, with friendly faces around them who are eager to converse and get to know one another," and this is exactly what they've created, through the use of a single communal dining table, sharing plates, and both popping heads in constantly to check on everyone, as if you're at a dinner party in someone's home. It's hard not to be struck by how meaningful the experience is, and how much of the people behind it comes through on the plates and in the room, so it feels like everyone there is in on something special.
The root of the word restaurant comes from the word "restorative", as when restaurants as we know them today started to open in Paris in the 18th century they were seen as a way to restore your body and soul. That's exactly what Roots does - restores you through food picked metres from where you're sitting, cooked in a way that respects what it is and isn't trying to turn it into something else, and makes you feel better from the inside out just for having been a part of it. With people finally starting to come around to the importance of both using and eating Irish produce, Keith and Aisling are an example for others to follow, and we have little doubt that this farm/guesthouse/restaurant they're dreaming of is going to be big news when it finally comes together - possibly scene-changing.
At Food On The Edge in Galway last week one of the chefs who was giving a talk said "having good food is a way to respect yourself, it's self-care", and we can think of few other places bringing this to life in such a vivid way right now. Roots are hoping to host more pop-ups on the McNally farm (and other places), but sign up to their mailing list or follow them on Instagram to hear about what's next.