Roots + Rye is one of the newer additions to Santana Row, the tony retail village in San Jose where some restaurants have a polished corporate veneer that suggests style is valued over substance. On the surface, Roots + Rye appeared to fit that profile.
Inside, the restaurant is sleek and dark, and the decor is trendy -- industrial pendant lighting, marquee signs and exposed two-by-fours that make the place look framed but unfinished.
The name seems to imply a focus on whiskey and craft cocktails (my colleague Sal Pizarro wrote about those a few months back), and, indeed, about half of the large, open space is devoted to drinking. There's a long, backlit bar and a lounge area with low tables, as well as patio seating around two outdoor fire pits.
But after being seated in the cavernous, dimly lit dining room and served a Triple Crown cocktail (sweet but not too, and decidedly delicious), I realized my preconceptions about the place were wrong.
Roots + Rye is owned by Chris Yeo, the chef and restaurateur behind the successful Santana Row establishments Straits and Sino. The chef de cuisine is Kat Hu, who was rolling out updated menu items on both of my recent visits.
The preponderance of the items here are small plates, listed on the menu under the heading "sharing is caring." They range from dishes that are easy to split, such as deviled eggs ($8), to larger plates like the one with three pan-seared scallops served on a creamy kohlrabi puree with lemon foam ($24). At Santana Row, dishes can be pricier than what you'd pay elsewhere, but fortunately there's quality here to back it up. This one, with its elements of earth, sea and sky (the cloudlike foam), would be at right at home at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Another favorite in the small-plates category was the cola-braised pork belly sliders ($12), whose succulent sweetness was balanced by the tangy pickled vegetables accompanying them. We also enjoyed the "chips" (deep fried chicken skin) and dip ($6). Such chips are showing up more often on menus, frequently served with a spicy aioli. Here, that dip was a little too hot, and lacking in the hallmark garlic flavor. But with some tweaking, it would be an ideal foil for the crispy, lightly salty skin.
From the large-plates menu, we also sampled the Petaluma chicken ($22). Served in a smaller portion than I've seen at other restaurants, the leg and thigh (clearly from a young bird) were bathed lightly in a barbecue-style sauce, and the meat was tender and moist. It came with tasty roasted sunchokes and spinach, though the latter seemed an afterthought, with the leaves barely wilted and some woody stems attached.
Despite it being a fairly busy Saturday night, our food arrived quickly, with no annoying gaps between courses. At lunch on a rainy weekday, we had the place almost to ourselves, giving our server, who spoke passionately about the food, time to tell us about new menu items and old favorites.
A newer addition was the salmon crudo ($12) with green mango and citrus, beautifully presented. Linear stripes of pink, orange and yellow down the center of the plate were like rays of sunshine on the rather dreary day of our visit. Although the mango was sweetly ripe rather than puckering green, and I couldn't detect lemongrass in the dressing, it was still delicious -- a nice, light dish for those of us who are trying to keep New Year's resolutions.
We gobbled down the popular bacon-gruyere flatbread ($15), which was generously dotted with perfectly rendered lardons and topped with arugula. The middle was slightly limp, but this dish paired so nicely with a glass of pinot noir that it didn't matter.
Bacon makes another appearance on the R + R burger ($18), in the form of apple bacon jam, paired with caramelized onions and cheddar. The burger and fries had been split and delivered on two plates -- proof that our server had paid attention when we mentioned we were sharing everything. Ordered medium-rare, the burger was cooked perfectly, but a heavier hand with salt and pepper would have improved the dish.
More salt in the candy bar tart ($9) -- a tender pastry crust filled with chocolate, peanuts and caramel -- would have moved the needle from meh to tantalizing. Better was the fried apple pie ($9), a dessert that rekindled the taste memory of the McDonald's delicacy from my youth, though a decidedly more grown-up version, with tart crème fraîche ice cream and a garnish of raspberry powder. This dessert was one of many nice touches that proved the Roots + Rye kitchen has some serious chops.
I still don't get the exposed two-by-fours on the walls. And the lights were so low that I had to squint to read the menu at night. The volume of the music exceeded background level, too. But the food at Roots + Rye was good enough to make me feel I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Email Jennifer Graue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roots + Rye
* * *
Santana Row, 3055 Olin Ave., San Jose
The Dish: Roots + Rye is the newest concept from restaurateur Chris Yeo, the man behind the popular Straits and Sino restaurants. A wide range of interesting small plates complements the craft cocktails served in this hip, upscale spot on Santana Row.
Pluses: Creative, well-composed small plates with touches that exceed typical bar food.
Minuses: The Santana Row location means you'll pay more than you would for similar dishes elsewhere. The dim lighting and loud music might turn off some diners.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Dinner, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday, until midnight Thursday-Saturday. Small plates available 3-5 p.m.; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends.
Policy: Restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously; the Mercury News pays for all meals.