by Anne Berry
Flamed berries, a switchel-soaked snowball and a stack of Fernet Branca challenge coins marked Monday’s soft launch of Max Messier’s cocktail menu at Root Squared.
Chef Phillip Lopez’s Square Root (1800 Magazine Street, 504-309-7800) and its upstairs lounge, Root Squared, open Wednesday. The new restaurant is an offshoot of Lopez's Root (200 Julia St., 504-252-9480).
For the preview, Messier rolled out seven smart cocktails that hint at what’s to come. Aromatized wines, vermouth, shrubs, cordials and tea concentrates get lots of play, and his variations on classics — a smoky Cuba libre smudged with mezcal, Mexican Coke and a lime-jalapeno cordial; a bourbon-based Manhattan made edgy with bitter liqueur and green peppercorn — are confident and experimental. He also mixed a gin sour sweetened with jasmine tea concentrate.
Messier gained experience opening five restaurants, mostly in New York City, where he also catered private pop-ups where he showed up with whatever he’d found at the farmers market and improvised cocktails on the spot.
Square Root is similarly high-concept. “I’m bringing out all of my favorite tools of the trade — flowers, teas, exotic spices and farmers’ market discoveries — to complement Chef Lopez’s culinary vision,” Messier says. “It’s fantastic to go to the owners with what I want to do, and they say, ‘Go to it.’”
His versatility is especially vital downstairs, where Messier crafts mixed drinks — shandies, vermouth sippers — to pair with each course of ever-changing tasting menus. During the industry preview, the open kitchen — lights blazing, Lopez in his element — gave the space an electric vibe.
The mood was cooler in the upper lounge with its low lighting, chic leather sofas and spring breezes from a wrap-around balcony. Small plates, cheeses (which will eventually include house-made cheeses) and charcuterie are the lounge’s food offerings.
At the bar, Messier dry-shook his ginger-grapefruit switchel (a tart punch) with honeysuckle vodka and vermouth and poured it over hand-crushed ice for his take on the snowball. It’s a pretty drink — atmospheric and layered — with sweet heat. (It gets its name, A Roll in the Hay, from switchel’s colonial-era moniker.)
The buzzed-about, high-tech bar tools aren’t yet in sight; using a homogenizer to fast-age whisky, for instance, will take refining to get the texture Messier wants. He expects to incorporate rotary evaporators and an expanded ice program. “We’re going to capture smoke in ice,” he says.
For now, it’s fun to watch him flame ripe strawberries with a torch of overproof rum. His take on a strawberry daiquiri features berries muddled with mint, verbena and lime, paired with 86 Co.’s Cana Brava rum (one of many small-batch, premium spirits he uses) and given a Prosecco float. The minty-sour, full-bodied drink delivered the essence of strawberry without the sweetness.
The Root Squared bar features up to a dozen specialty cocktails, $12 each; happy hour specials include $5-$8 select cocktails and runs 5 p.m.- 7 p.m. daily. Dining at Square Root is by reservation only and features a $150 multi-course tasting menu; add $45 for cocktails, $65 for wine pairings.