The Roosevelt does not disappoint. Inside a handsome Church Hill building, the dining room is welcoming, like a family’s farmhouse, with a high ceiling, iron sconces and a fireplace. Eclectic wooden furniture is placed just close enough to ease diners into a convivial mood. The service crew is friendly, efficient and knowledgeable. I like that they recite the prices of the daily specials.
The Roosevelt is the third local project from restaurateur Kendra Feather (Ipanema Café, Garnett’s), and it already has must-try items, such as the refreshing blueberry mint smash ($2) and buttermilk panna cotta ($5). Skipping a nomination process, I’m inducting the crispy pig-head terrine with pickled mustard ($4) onto the list. I implore you to ignore preconceived notions and images popping up in your head. You must try this dish at least once. It is that good.
The terrine is lightly breaded and looks like a fried green tomato. A scrumptious flavor fest waits in that unassuming disk; forkfuls of tender, savory cheek and jowl meat contrast with soft, crunchy slices of pig ear that ring the terrine. Tangy sauce surprises with pops of fragrant coriander seeds. This appetizer is brilliant.
The menu reflects chef Lee Gregory’s devotion to Southern cuisine, punctuated by a playful and witty bent, with some dishes more successful than others. Sweet potato soup ($6) is kept savory, its sweet marshmallow melting subtly. Black-eyed pea fritters with curry yogurt ($4) are full of pea flavor, but are dry. The spicy curry sauce helps, if only there’s enough to moisten all three fritters.
Black kale salad with fig dressing ($7) falls victim to an apparent kitchen mistake: the failure to massage the dressing into the raw leaves, a crucial step to break up the waxy coating and let the vinegar tenderize the salad. I summon my inner goat and start munching, but my jaws are tired when I finish the leafy pile.
Pork loin with potato dumplings and mustard sauce ($16) arrives after a few minutes of rest. The savory pork and dumplings are offset by tangy crunch of grained mustard-cider sauce. I am puzzled by the pork, though. The thick loin is nicely grilled, juicy and moist; yet it is a bit tough. I worry it’s my tired jaws, but my husband confirms the pork is chewy. I can only attribute it to the fact that commercial pork in the United States is bred too lean.
Seared scallops with collards, Wade’s Mill grits and clam broth ($18) is tasty, but curiously the six medium-sized scallops are just OK. Minimal brown crusts from searing tell me that the pan was not hot enough, and more juice seeped out of the scallops, rendering them smaller. Other components are good — the clam broth evokes ocean brine, the collard greens are soft but not mushy, and a splash of cider vinegar cuts through the creamy grits.
Johnnycake with fall vegetables ($13) is a 9-inch round cornmeal pancake with crispy brown edges. I wish the sauce had sage or thyme, or lemon juice, to make it less ho-hum. On the other hand, the colorful Brussels sprouts, carrots, turnips and mushrooms are cooked until perfectly tender. No Southern mush or California crunch here.
Braised chicken thighs with fall vegetables and potato dumplings ($15) are a winner. The soft, savory thighs get a thoughtful pan-fried-to-order treatment, which adds a delectable brown crust underneath. Gregory makes potato dumplings, or gnocchi, that are fluffy and light, rivaling his former boss Dale Reitzer. A tasty side of gnocchi in creamy sauce falls short of cheesy expectation when titled gnocchi mac and cheese ($4).
Desserts are generous, not too sweet, and priced very well at $5 a piece. Peanut butter pie is intense with flavor, light in texture. Tangy-sweet buttermilk panna cotta is one of the best tasting custards I’ve had, but six bits of undissolved gelatin and blueberry garnish detract from the creamy texture. As out-of-season blueberries are not all ripe, making them into blueberry sauce would serve the panna cotta better.
The retro Coca-Cola cake is the lone chocolate option, two layers of dense, moist chocolate cake with marshmallow chocolate filling and icing. Coconut cake is divine. An almost nonsweet frosting provides creaminess for the glorious sweet coconut filling.
The Roosevelt’s good food, efficient service, easy ambience and wallet-friendly prices already attract diners beyond its neighborhood. On weeknights, getting a table is not hard. But if you go on the weekend, bundle up and wait the 45 minutes. It’s worth it. S
623 N. 25th St.
Dinner: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight
Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Ellie Basch is a chef, food writer and food activist who is assigned to bring a chef’s perspective to restaurant reviewing for Style Weekly.