Common Roots Cafe struck a chord with Uptowners and environmentally conscious diners when it opened its doors two and a half years ago. Boasting a menu full of locally grown and organic ingredients, the cafe became a gathering place for laptop luggers, families, and community groups looking for a place to chat over fresh, sustainable food. But with a recent expansion of the dinner menu and the beer and wine list, owner Danny Schwartzman hopes to see his customer base continue to grow as well — not only among the locavore population but also to diners seeking a good meal, regardless of where the food is sourced.
“I want this to be a place where you come not only because the food is local and organic, but also because you really like the food,” Schwartzman says.
And when the food comes from producers like Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Coastal Seafoods, and Wisconsin cheese producer Sartori Foods, it’s not hard to craft a menu that brings out the best qualities of each ingredient and reflects the unique offerings of each season. Schwartzman, a community organizer-turned-restaurateur, works closely with his kitchen staff, including kitchen manager Taya Kaufenberg and sous chef Adam Ruplinger, to source ingredients and create a slate of dishes that changes monthly.
“We want to serve food that matches the quality of the ingredients,” he says.
Schwartzman points to the cafe’s cauliflower ravioli as a example. The ravioli, a holdover from the January menu due to its popularity, is a familiar appetizer or entree at many restaurants. But rather than using the pasta as the starting point, Ruplinger drew inspiration from the apple cider used in the reduction that tops the dish. Combined with the nuttiness of brown butter and SarVecchio Parmesan, the earthiness of sage, and the tenderness of the bite-size pieces of cauliflower, the ravioli, which is filled with cauliflower puree, expertly walks the line between sweet and savory and showcases the brassica’s versatility.
“We’re constantly taking notes in our heads and asking customers what they’d like to see,” Schwartzman says. “We’re really lucky to have customers who like to try different things, so we try to mix up more common things with dishes that push the envelope more.”
Those dishes include the wild striped bass you’ll find seated upon a bed of celeriac slaw and surrounded by a chermoula sauce. The entree successfully demonstrates how a vibrant mix of flavors can add body to a light-tasting fish. The aioli dressing of the slaw brings a creaminess to the plate that complements the crispy-skinned bass and elevates the dish way beyond the serviceable grilled salmon you’ll often find as a menu’s sole finfish offering. A collaboration between Kaufenberg and Ruplinger, the fish illustrates the culinary creativity that results from a kitchen where chefs are encouraged to experiment with flavors and textures.
“I’ve found that people put up better food when they’re allowed to take control of it,” Schwartzman says. “A lot of our menu comes from all-staff meetings. Every week we’re doing something different.”
And when a restaurant like Common Roots Cafe makes the use of local ingredients a priority (88 percent of all cafe purchases in 2009 were local, organic, or fair trade), sometimes ideas come from what isn’t available, too, Schwartzman notes. Ruplinger originally conceived the cumin-crusted flat-iron steak as a venison dish, but difficulty in securing venison led him to use Thousand Hills beef in its place. Steak lovers will applaud the result — the dish features slices of tender, perfectly seasoned meat atop a bed of sauteed escarole and circled by a sweet garlic puree. The plate also includes figs braised in bourbon and red wine, which lend a candied-but-not-cloying touch to the meal.
Schwartzman admits that when he launched the cafe in 2007, he was worried about finding enough food from area producers to keep the menu centered on local and organic ingredients. Luckily, his fears were unfounded.
“From day one, because of the network of producers and co-ops in the area, it’s been easy,” Schwartzman says. “I’m really happy with the relationship we have with our producers. We’re able to make all our food from scratch and all with high-quality ingredients, but the end goal of being sustainable isn’t necessarily obvious to person coming to eat here. We’ve been lucky that kind of magic works.”
Learn more about this business in Heavy Table’s Atlas of Ethical Eating and Drinking.