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Root 174 has an evolving menu, but keeps a personal touch

Background

Keith Fuller gets big pleasure from his small restaurant.

After serving as sous chef and then, executive chef at Six Penn Restaurant, Downtown, Fuller is owner and executive chef at Root 174 in Regent Square.

Freed from the constraints that come with offering a menu that changes infrequently, Fuller enjoys being able to experiment at will.

"What's nice about being small is that I get to play (with the menu). If it doesn't work, I change it," he says.

John Heidelmeier, who serves as sous chef and pastry chef, is an invaluable resource, Fuller says. "I couldn't have done this without him."

Root 174 seats 36 inside. In good weather, tables on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant can seat another 15 patrons.

It opened July 18 in the space previously occupied by Legume Bistro, which relocated to Oakland in September.

Atmosphere

Intimate, casual and upscale, Root 174 attracts lots of Regent Square residents, and a lot of vegans and vegetarians who are willing to travel across town in search of imaginative and well-prepared vegetarian entrees.

Fuller works to keep locals happy with a menu that's changed -- or, at least, tweaked -- on an almost daily basis. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, he encourages residents' business with a 10 percent discount for those who can offer proof that they live within the 15218 or 15221 zip codes. There's an additional 5 percent reduction for residents who are seated before 8 p.m.

The result is a dining room that fills quickly with a wide age range of diners who are chatty and sociable, which raises the energy and noise levels.

The waitstaff is enthusiastic and well-informed about selections and how they're prepared. They're also attentive -- filling and refilling water and wine glasses and checking back as the meal progresses. Service is efficient and seamless. With courses arriving in easy succession, you can have a full and relaxed meal -- from appetizers to desserts -- in a little more than an hour.

Menu

The personal touch is evident throughout.

In addition to the small but varied menu of six entrees and six starters, additional items are listed on a chalkboard; plus, your waiter might have additional daily choices to offer. Unfortunately, neither the chalkboard nor waiter-recited items have prices attached.

Fuller promises there always will be chicken, steak and vegan choices. But how they're prepared or accessorized can change on a monthly, weekly or even daily basis, as produce gets used and reordered or when inspiration strikes.

Grilled Hanger Steak with blue-cheese croquettes, fingerling-potato fries and a port-wine demi-glaze ($24) has been a staple since the restaurant began.

Vegetables get special attention.

So, the Chicken Breast ($22), juicy on the inside, crispy skin on the outside, was served with a nicely braised portion of shredded collard greens and served with black-eyed pea waffles pleasantly accented with curry.

Fuller loves gnocchi, so it's likely to be available in some form.

The night we were there, the fluffy clouds of Ricotta Gnocchi ($19), an upscale comfort food, were dressed with fresh peas, wild mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, a just-set fried egg and Parmesan cheese.

Delicious though it was, Fuller already was contemplating a new, more fall-like version with butternut squash and cranberries.

Vegans and vegetarians always can be sure of having several choices.

A recent menu offered Vegan Meatloaf ($18) with root-vegetable polenta, Brussels-sprouts leaves and a smoky raisin jam.

One thing unlikely to get erased from the chalkboard any time soon is the Roasted Brussels Sprouts With Black Pepper Jam ($6). "I've taken it off twice and gotten yelled at," Fuller says.

It's easy to see why. If General Tso's mother had been a vegetarian -- and a really good cook -- she might have served him this spicy, crunchy delight.

The crunchy little faux cabbages have a crispy outer coating of thin egg-white batter, then spiced with the black-pepper jam that combines sweetness and a bit of fire.

They've got a sure place for the moment. But even they might disappear.

"Sooner or later, something will come off," Fuller warns. "It creates more buzz and appreciation when it comes back."

To avoid disappointment or heighten anticipation, Fuller advises customers to check Root 174 postings on Facebook, which are updated almost daily.

We started our meal with two tasty appetizers -- a big bowl of Mussels ($12) in a lively green curry broth, served with a thick hunk of grilled cornbread, and Bone Marrow Creme Brulee ($5), a spreadable treat that was extremely rich and savory. It made a nice beginning to the meal, especially when spread on thin rounds of baguette that could be topped with the tiny matchsticks of apple gremolata.

Desserts are made in the kitchen.

But when it comes to desserts, Fuller is happy to let Heidelmeier add pastry chef to his sous chef title.

"I'm slowly evolving. But John is better at it," Fuller says.

After the two desserts we enjoyed, we can't wait to see where their evolution leads.

The Chocolate Espresso Cake was everything you might imagine -- dark and dense, yet slightly sweet and soft. What made it even better was a small twist of butter icing and a puddle of berry sauce that highlighted the taste of fresh fruit over the sugar.

Fuller says his ambition is to offer simple, plain desserts that are evolving into fun.

That certainly was evident in the PBJ Cheesecake ($7) that had a base of Cap'n Crunch's Peanut Butter Crunch Cereal and ribbons of peanut butter and strawberry jam -- sounds gimmicky, tastes great.

Additional Information:

Root 174

Cuisine: Modern international

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Entree price range: $15-$26

Notes: BYOB with $5 per bottle or six-pack corkage fee; reservations recommended for any size party up to 12; accepts most major credit cards

Location: 1113 South Braddock Ave., Regent Square

Details: 412-243-4348 or website

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