Best New Restaurants // No. 1 Root Food + Wine
Over the river and through the woods, heading west past Chesterfield, taking Missouri 94 down another 16 miles of rural, winding, two-lane road ... to Root Food + Wine we go. Nestled among the backroads and small homes and businesses of Augusta, deep in wine country, Root offers a concise selection of starters, plates and sweets available a la carte or as a prix-fixe menu (special sandwiches, along with the full dinner menu, are served at lunch on Saturdays). Unless you live in the neighborhood, it’s probably out of the way for you. That was not by design, according to chef-owner Philip Day, but it’s worked out so far. “It really wasn’t part of the plan – it just kind of happened that way. You can’t really control when you have the opportunity,” he said. “You’ve got the Katy Trail, you’ve got people that are traveling, you’ve got people who are willing to drive out here because they like the idea of a destination restaurant.” And, of course, there are people who are visiting the local wineries who want to stop in for a nice meal.
Root is a rare farm-to-table restaurant that actually feels like it’s cooking and serving the environment that it’s in, and the food is distinctly Missourian. For Day, it’s just about letting local ingredients drive his menu, which changes weekly. “I think it’s easier to have that feeling when my mushrooms come from the area, and my produce and my beef and trout come from Missouri,” he said. “When you have that, it pushes you in that direction, and that’s something that we’ve wanted to try to convey through the food.” Depending on when you visit, you’ll find everything from jelly made from Augusta Winery port and Little Gem lettuce from Lucky Dog Farm to Buttonwood Farm chicken and Rockbridge trout. The ricotta is made in-house from local dairy, while the sourdough comes from a 6-year-old starter.
A meal at Root, especially if you’re doing one of the chef’s tastings, is a rustic journey that mirrors the drive to Root – beautiful and surprising, with plenty of scene changes. The sourdough with miso butter was funky and hearty, while the venison pastrami with whole-grain mustard and horseradish froth transported us to the forest deli of our dreams. The Little Gem salad with green goddess dressing was tangy and creamy, perfectly savory and balanced with gorgeous, microplaned, cured farm egg and white cheddar atop. The O’Fallon mushroom soup featured a rich-but-clean, dashi-style broth (made using smoked mushrooms) that worked spot-on with the barley and radish it was poured over tableside. A unanimous highlight was the delicious, juicy smoked quail, which came with tasty apple compote, pumpkin puree and tender cabbage – it embodied the fall vibe we longed for.
Day, who has taken the Court of Master Sommeliers’ introductory course, put together the wine list, which features a good blend of local, New World and Old World bottles and offers plenty of options that pair well with his food. With this kind of cuisine, it’s especially fun to test out different wines to find what works for you. We enjoyed the 2019 Cave La Comtadine, a grenache from Cotes du Rhone, France, during the entree stretch of one meal, but during dessert, we loved trying the Noboleis Volume VI port-style wine, made just two miles from the restaurant.
The cocktail menu, developed by bartender Dylan O’Hara, is full of fun and weird drinks like the Cherry Sour, a bourbon cocktail mixed with three different forms of cherry (including a pinot noir foam infused with cherry bitters). But it’s the Pepper PhD, which I’ve ordered on every visit, that’s absolutely transfixed me. It’s like a spicy, earthy Dr. Pepper Old-Fashioned, but the Dr. Pepper flavor comes organically from the addition of a mysterious blend of components that replicate the soft drink’s famous 23 proprietary flavors. I didn’t even bother to ask what the cocktail’s secrets were because it was more fun to just think about it.
Root’s service is lighthearted and unpretentious; servers are friendly and even make jokes, but they can detail the nuances of dashi or which local wine you should pair with your food. Weathered, wood-handled knives and cute, themed salt-and-pepper shakers make you feel like you’re dining in an old, countryside bed and breakfast. The pacing of the tasting menu is like the Fibonacci sequence: Plates came in quick succession at first, and then slower and slower, until we eased effortlessly into the bill and back out onto the road home. And there’s a delicious, complimentary bite that comes at the end, but I won’t spoil what it is.
Root Food + Wine is the most exciting kind of restaurant, one that’s always searching and changing, always trying to keep up with the environment around it. And that, of course, is the essence of farm-to-table. It’s about symbiosis. “Working with other small businesses … they help you, you help them, you build a community,” Day said. “That was something I wanted to have here. There’s never been a restaurant trying to do what we do out in this area, so it’s kind of a new concept, and we really didn’t know how it was going to be taken.” It’s being taken well. And just to be explicit: It’s worth the drive.
Root Food + Wine, 5525 Walnut St, Augusta, MO 63332, rootfoodwine.com
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