Megan Abbott

Take Root: Sewing The Seeds of Modern Fine Dining

Megan Abbott
Take Root: Sewing The Seeds of Modern Fine Dining

Originally published in Life & Thyme Magazine, Issue Two

From a leafy residential street in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, Elise Kornack and Anna Hieronimus are quietly at work reshaping the rules of modern dining. The two, who married at The Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg in 2013, opened Take Root two years ago after hosting a string of successful supper clubs from their apartment. The pair work side-by-side with no outside help, which perhaps explains the warm intimacy that suffuses the room day and night. It is their space, their second home, and the fruit of their shared motivation. ‘We wanted to open a place that we would want to dine at. We’ve created our dream dining experience.’ Elise explains, ‘Which is ironic, because we never actually get to eat here!’

The peppermint-washed restaurant, which once acted as Hieronimus’ yoga studio, seats just 12 and serves a tasting menu at 8pm, three nights a week. With its heavy wooden bar and miniature garden of cactus plants soaking up the sun from the bay window, the small space sets the stage for visitors who sit down not only to enjoy fine food, but to share a moment in time with strangers. The experience is an odd, delicate one. Stripped of crowds and layers of sound, guests at Take Root are entirely aware of each other’s presence, tasting exactly the same food at exactly the same time.

Anna and Elise have tapped into a pocket of fine dining that is still unheard of in New York. Cities like Paris or Tokyo have a wealth of tiny, one-menu eateries, yet New York still remains a breeding ground for vast, sparkling dining rooms with menus that read like glossy magazines, brimming with choice. With Take Root, the pair extend an invitation for food-lovers to nestle down in what feels like a friend’s living room, embroiled in something luxurious, unique and transient.

Elise, who previously worked in the kitchen of Aquavit, comes alive within her small kitchen. She is entirely alone inside it, at work with her own ideas, and that is exactly as she likes it. ‘I always wanted to be able to execute a vision by myself,’ Elise tells us as she darts from pan to steaming pan. ‘My work is solitary now, and I like it that way. It’s like being an artist; I’m in my studio doing my own stuff, then when people come here to eat it’s like an exhibition.’

Elise draws up the tasting menus with a focus on the seasons as they pass over each other. Light springtime flavors overlap summer ones, which overlap heavier autumnal ingredients.

It is possibly the greatest feat of cookery, to create a dish that makes you want to inhale every molecule, whilst simultaneously longing for it to never end. Visiting Take Root on a white-skied Thursday afternoon, we were able to fully understand the consistent praise that has trailed behind the place like a dust cloud ever since it opened. Elise disappeared into the kitchen, interjecting through the indoor window from time to time. For the most part, though, Anna and Elise’s roles remain fixed; Anna is the face at the front and Elise stays at work in the kitchen. When she does reemerge, it is with the first thing for us to try, a beluga lentil dish cooked in coffee and mushroom stock, finished with crispy mushrooms and lavish peels of black truffle. It looks simple enough, elegant enough, presented in a black bowl with the dark storm at the center. The flavors are smooth, nutty, luxurious and entirely unique. ‘I feel like technique can be taught, but taste is intuitive. Most of the dishes just come from my head, really.’ Elise comments as we disappear into our bowls. Next, we sample dessert; a white chocolate parfait with crispy wheat berry, quince puree and cranberry coulis. It looks like it was built using a glue gun; perfectly formed and stunningly delicious. The tasting menu format adds to the deeply personal experience inside Take Root. In the knowledge that each menu is crafted from scratch, visitors can enjoy a meal unique to that one seasonal moment.

‘I think after some success you get a certain level of confidence. After that, you feel less like you have to constantly justify what you’re doing.’ Anna explains, ‘You can talk to people about it in a less defensive way.’

This need to vindicate Take Root comes down to its uniqueness in comparison to most of New York’s restaurant success stories. ‘We’re young, we’re gay and we’re married and we’re running a restaurant by ourselves. Some people-very few-question us because of that.’ Elise tells us, ‘People have preconceived notions about what a successful restaurant should look like. We don’t fit into those categories.’ ‘There’s just sometimes that look of confusion,’ Anna agrees, ‘A lot of that has to do with how young we look, more than anything else. It’s silly, really.’

Yet Anna and Elise have surpassed these predeterminations. This year, Take Root was awarded a Michelin Star, stirring up even more public interest around it. Bookings stretch back months in advance, and the accolades are pouring in from all sides. Yet, to Elise and Anna, tending to the whims of food fashion is not important. ‘There’s nothing I hate more than when people say an ingredient is ‘trending’.’ Elise explains through the window that divides the kitchen from the main room, ‘Like fashion and art, I understand that food goes through changing styles. It can’t be avoided. But I want to keep Take Root as original as possible. I want people to leave with a clear idea of what my point of view is as a chef. My own point of view.’

It is only a matter of time before the food scene catches on and begins mirroring the structure of Take Root. But for now Anna and Elise are alone, together in gifting New Yorkers with this quietly distinctive eating experience. There is a clarity to the restaurant, an intimacy that is a natural part of the structure, not feigned with candlelight or soft music. ‘It can take people time to relax into the room on some nights,’ Anna explains, ‘When you are sharing a dining experience with strangers in such a small space, the atmosphere rests on the mood of everyone in the room. It’s interesting to see, each night is different. The air is different.’