MagoGuide spent several days in Tallahassee Florida during our 2013 Migration, taking the opportunity to brush up on our east coast swing steps with the help of Dancing Debo Powers. The capital of Florida is a blue hole in the red doughnut of the state’s panhandle, a university town with a lot of good restaurants. In recompense for our dance lessons, we took El Presidente to the Miccosukee Root Cellar for dinner.
Miccosukee Root Cellar
Owner Ruben Fields is a locavore evangelist who has resurrected a strip mall location near Tallahassee Memorial Hospital by repurposing deadwood from Panhandle riverine environs and fixtures scavenged from a nearby restaurant renovation project. His dirt-to-table creed involves a network of a dozen or so local farms. Instead of a restaurant, he styles his eatery a “dining community.”
Local critics have described the 49-seat space as “cozy” with “warm lighting.” I guess that this means that the seats are a bit closer together than I would like and that the lighting is not conducive to photography (made worse by the fact that they are not open for lunch—a feature of their business model I do not understand since they have a good shot at a dedicated lunch time crowd in the form of a large hospital nearby their mid-town location). The Miccosukee Root Cellar community does not take reservations and hosts occasional live music (mainly strains of jazz) on weekend nights.
We started our meal with eggplant flat bread and the charcuterie plate. A pizza by any other name, the flatbread was topped with roasted eggplant, smoked sausage, and roasted red pepper puree. The crust was unremarkable and overloaded. There was a surfeit of sausage and the smoke was hard to detect. I found myself wanting more of the eggplant, which was very good and from which the dish takes it name. The mozzarella was unexceptional, which was strange given the presence of better cheese on the menu and in the kitchen.
The charcuterie plate was an assortment of five types of soppressata-like dry salami: callbressa (hot), norcino (wine), napoli (wine and smoked), toscano (fennel), and chursio (hotter and harder). The best were the callbressa, churiso, and toscano. I still could not taste smoke in the napoli. Perhaps this is because absolutely no salumi from Naples that I have ever encountered in situ is made with smoked meat. They do make sausage with wine in Norcia, but the pork and spices overwhelmed it in the version we were served. Despite these labeling problems, all of the offerings were well-made artisan salami. The plate came with pickled vegetables and house mustards. The pickles were a very nice touch, but the mustards were jarring and unnecessary. I could not help but wonder why Chef Matt Hagel tried to pair mustard with Italian salumi, a combination that I have never encountered in the land of their origin.
The soup course was better than the appetizers, but still had flaws that were puzzling and easily correctable. The local oyster mushrooms and ginger soup with sour cream was basically a high-end cream of mushroom. It had a rich mushroom flavor but it needed salt and freshly ground black pepper, which was neither offered nor on the table.
The “De Jour Soup” was a tomato bisque that, once again, was a high-end cream of tomato soup. I found it hard to call it a bisque since it contained neither shellfish stock nor sherry. It also needed salt and I thought that it could have been significantly elevated with a simple drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
The salads, not surprisingly for a fundamentalist organic establishment, were the best dishes of the evening. The local arugula salad with shaved onions, heat cheese, cane syrup roasted pecans, and Tupelo honey-maple vinaigrette was an excellent salad. The arugula was fresh and peppery and the pecans added a great sweet crunch while the onions provided a nice subtle kick. The heat cheese was superfluous. The local kale salad with Thomasville Tomme cheese, croutons, shaved onions, and lemon vinaigrette was even better. The kale was very good, massaged with lemon and extra virgin olive oil, not tough at all and very flavorful. This time the goat tomme made sense and added its sharp flavor to the salad.
Our mains consisted of a vegetarian entre and a brisket hash. By this point in the meal, it was clear that the strength of the kitchen lay in the locally sourced produce. The chef’s vegetable sauté served with brown rice and choice of roasted pepper puree or pineapple-soy glaze (we chose the pepper puree) had a nice melded flavor, but it could have used some crunch. In general Chef Hagel treats his excellent organic vegetables with respect and restraint so that their flavors shine through the preparations.
Meat took the form of Swamphead Midnight Oil (beer-) braised Orchard Pond brisket with sweet potato and bell pepper hash, local cane syrup glaze, and a six minute egg. The grass fed brisket had just the right amount of chew and the hearty flavor associated with this type of bovine. The egg was a nice touch, but a duck egg would have been far superior and, with Miccosukee Root Cellar’s large local farm network, should have been easy to obtain. The green peppers and sweet taters were well cooked, but given the season one would think that beets could have been employed to make a classic red flannel hash. The dish could also have profited with roasted Brussels sprouts from the highly touted network. Finally, the dish suffered from the inattention to detail I noticed throughout the meal, needing heat and acid to finish.
For dessert we chose a cheese board consisting of Sweet Grass Dairy Cheeses—Asher Blue, Heat, and Cyprus. They were served with tomato jam, balsamic onion compote, ginger preserves, Tupelo honey, and cane roasted pecans. The onion compote was rich and caramelized. The ginger preserves turned out to be pears and they were sweet but did not contain enough ginger. The tomato jam was simply disappointing. The Heat was the best cheese; you could actually taste the heat in it. The blue was dry, what is up with that? The Cyprus was dried herbs in a dry cheese. We instructed the kitchen to pick out our cheeses and this is what they sent out. Three dry cheeses? Were there no soft cheeses on offer at all?
Having suffered a drubbing at the hands of both waiters and sommeliers in some very expensive New Orleans restaurants the week prior (see our NOLA Dust-up Journal Entry), I was very happy to encounter excellent low-key service throughout our meal. This was particularly true with respect to wine. Miccosukee Root Cellar offers a concise and reasonable wine list. My first choice was a pinot noir that was thin and tannic. Our server immediately took the bottle back no questions asked and recommended a 2011 Ex Umbris (Owen Roe, Willamette, Oregan) pinot of equivalent price that was very good, round with a lot of strawberry fruit and a long finish. In addition to wine, the bar (in my opinion the nicest feature of the restaurant layout) has two microbrews on tap. When we were there they were pouring Swamp Head Brewery’s Midnight Oil Stout and Big Nose IPA.
In general, Miccosukee Root Cellar is a very pleasant venue for an evening meal. The space is welcoming, if a bit cramped, and the staff takes very good care of both locals and travelers. There were no complaints or dirty looks associated with our photography, note taking, and numerous questions concerning the food. The food is sturdy to good, but if the kitchen would work as hard as the serving staff it could evolve to complement the dedication and drive displayed by the front of the house as well as do justice to the wonderful produce gathered by the community’s foragers.