If you're looking for a meal while heading east on Highway 14 from Vancouver, Wash., consider Exit 8. Not because the highway sign there touts Burgerville, McDonald's, IHOP, Sheri's, Godfather's Pizza and Carl's Jr. nearby. If you bypass the fast-food joints, you'll find Roots, a new restaurant in Camas bringing distinctive big-city style to the suburbs of Clark County.
You may not recognize chef-owner Brad Root's name, but his face is familiar to Portland restaurant-goers after years working for Greg Higgins at the Heathman and Higgins, and Cory Schreiber at Wildwood. On paper, he does his mentors proud with his locally sourced ingredients and a focused menu of hearty American classics. On the plate, things aren't yet flawless, but the best dishes pop with flavor. Given Root's track record running three of the city's best kitchens, he's bound to get the rough edges smoothed out in no time.
Some starters at dinner were stellar, like plump scallops ($9.75), perfectly caramelized, on a disk of glistening lentils, and meaty crab cakes ($9.75) jazzed up with cayenne on a winter-wonderland salad of watercress, fennel and orange. A buttery puff-pastry tart filled with sweet onions and nutty Gruyère ($7.75) was the sort of thing I always seek in Paris but rarely find. Yet the tender house-smoked salmon ($6.50) was oversalted, while its partner salad relied too much on raw red onion and too little on a promised pomegranate vinaigrette.
It'd be hard to find a better steak than the expertly charred New York from eastern Oregon's Painted Hills, especially accompanied by buttery potatoes roasted in rock salt. Ditto for a thyme-rubbed chicken breast in a voluptuous sauce made with local white truffles ($16.45). Lamb shanks ($19.95) arrived falling-apart tender, but their dull flavor needed a brightening element, and the accompanying butter beans were undercooked and chalky.
Few local restaurants serve cassoulet ($19.95), the French slow-cooked bean stew with sausage and preserved duck, a satisfying winter dish. Root's version, made with tiny, light-green flageolet beans and a dusting of buttered crumbs, should be splendid--working with Greg Higgins, he saw some of the best charcuterie-making around--but on our visit the meats were inedibly salty.
Some aspects of Roots will seem familiar to anyone who's been to Wildwood, from the menu graphics to the midcentury-modern interior dominated by light woods. When my husband perused the menu, he gleefully crowed, "Wow, it's Wildwood minus five bucks a dish." Root bridles at that, pointing out that some dishes--crab cakes, a local pork chop with polenta, salmon with artichokes and cauliflower ($17.95), lamb shanks with wild mushrooms ($19.95)--might legitimately show up on any seasonal menu around these parts. Still, halibut fish and chips ($10.50) and corned-beef hash ($8.95 at brunch) are Wildwood signatures, and the ghost of Higgins hovers at lunch with an open-faced pastrami-and-white-cheddar sandwich.
The chef admits he chose tried-and-true dishes for his first season--the restaurant opened just last November--but says he plans to strut more of his own stuff in the future. "I kept some things from Wildwood, but I'm planning on changing the menu pretty drastically every couple of months," Root says. "Just about everything is at the mercy of the seasons."
Desserts are appealing versions of traditional American sweets, like ginger crêpes filled with an intensely appley apple butter ($5.50). Rich vanilla ice cream tops an impeccable pear crisp ($4.95), though a caramel sauce adds more sweetness than necessary. Sure to become a signature, the twice-baked chocolate soufflé ($5.95) is a coffee mug of warm cake with a molten chocolate center, topped with a cappuccino-like puff of unsweetened coffee whipped cream, its bitterness an ideal foil for the chocolate. The first time we tasted it, perfection. On another visit, the soufflé had been overbaked originally, then inadequately reheated to serve, resulting in a disappointing lack of chocolate goo. If you go, insist on goo.
Though Root brings a rigorous local focus to the menu, his convictions didn't transfer to the overlong, too-pricey wine list, which jumbles well-chosen Pacific Northwest wines with boring California labels. Every Californian could be replaced by something as good or better from our region. And a couple of pinot noirs for less than $25 are a must.
Don't expect the state of Washington to put up a sign for Roots at Exit 8. But as the restaurant grows, flourishes and--sorry--puts down roots, locals who care about what they eat, and where their food comes from, are going to be wearing a groove in that stretch of Highway 14.
19215 SE 34th St., Camas, Wash., (360) 260-3001.11:30 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm Monday-Sunday; bar menu available from 2-10 pm Monday-Sunday.Credit cards accepted. No checks.$$ Moderate.
Picks worth a trip: Caramelized scallops with lentils, puff-pastry tart filled with sweet onions and nutty Gruyère, expertly charred New York steak, thyme-rubbed chicken breast with local white truffles, apple-pear crisp and twice-baked chocolate soufflé.