Growing up in the nineties, I found the term ‘Californian cuisine’ bemusing, as it seemed vague but pretentious, denoting a lifestyle rather than a cuisine, and evoking images of temperate al fresco dining with Chardonnay. But extra virgin olive oil was a luxury item back then and sun dried tomatoes the height of sophistication. Now, with the internet, food programmes on television and the cult of Ottolenghi, we are all food experts.
Which brings us to Rootdown, a small restaurant opened by siblings at the top of Lower Clapton Road, serving carefully selected fusion dishes described as ‘Californian’, a descriptor I find both archaic and endearing in a city awash with ‘Modern European’ menus. The restaurant prides itself on seasonal, small-scale food. I did note Growing Communities as one of their suppliers, suggesting this was not just lip-service to sustainability, and upon further investigation, Rootdown smokes its own salmon, makes pickles in-house, serves its own beer, and mixes up carefully crafted house cocktails, all at very reasonable prices.
For starters we had pan-fried squid with pickled turnips and smoked almonds, a Japanese bonito broth with raw tofu, and some homemade foccacia with zata’ar. All delicious, although the delicate bonito broth unfortunately was too wan up against the strong flavours of the other dishes. To follow, we opted for polenta with wild mushrooms, asparagus and truffle oil, and the bewildering onglet steak with padron peppers, potatoes and taleggio.
These were rich dishes, not for the faint of heart, but the taleggio and steak combination proved to be a winner – we devoured it. Becca, the owner, swore the polenta’s silkiness was chiefly due to whipping rather than heavy cream, but I didn’t entirely believe her. Even though truffle oil is frequently reviled by chefs as being fool’s gold, I would certainly order this dish again.
We finished off with a flawless grilled peach and meringue combination before tottering home. The only thing I would reproach Rootdown for is its friendly but disorganised service, a small crime given it certainly delivers on the promise set by its inventive and enticing menu. It’s a shame it hasn’t had more press coverage, but maybe you should visit before it becomes impossible to book a table. I certainly will.
Rootdown, 237 Lower Clapton Rd, London E5 8EG