Sometimes love is hard. Maybe the person you adore sometimes forgets to take their anti-crazy medicine, with predictable consequences. Maybe the sweetest, most lovable cat in the world occasionally decides to pee on you without warning because he has bad feelings inside. Maybe the best TV show ever gets pulled off the air before they were able to resolve numerous important plot points. Or maybe you, like me, find that your best restaurant experiences and your worst ones sometimes happen during the same meal.
In the end, we can respond to challenges like these in one of two ways. We can shut the door, turn off the lights, and pretend we aren’t home when difficult love comes calling. Alternatively, we can dive right in, take the good with the bad, and come away from it all with memorable experiences, some of which will bring smiles to our faces and some of which will be recounted only in therapy sessions.
All of which is to say that my feelings regarding the Miccosukee Root Cellar are a bit complicated. The food there is consistently excellent, celebrating local ingredients in simple and elegant ways. But other aspects of the experience can oscillate so rapidly between the delightful and the perplexing that you may have difficulty believing that you can have so many different feelings in a single evening.
After you roll up to MRC and park in the reasonably large lot in the back, you can either cut straight in through the back door or walk around the front, where there are some cute little patio tables beside a very busy road. Step inside, even on a weeknight, and you will most likely discover a packed and bustling room full of people, all of whom are craving some of MRC’s awesome selection of locavore cuisine.
Once you elbow your way through the crowds and get your name on the list to wait for a table, you might notice a few other things. You might notice the strange commingling of sharp-looking decor elements, like the beautiful tree-root mural or the elegant wooden bar, standing beside hand-built furniture that might seem more appropriate in a dorm room than in one of Tally’s pricier restaurants. Or perhaps you would find your attention drawn to the struggles of people trying to manage the many plates and glasses that accompany a full-service dinner while huddled around tiny, cafe-sized tables. But then you might notice that, despite their awkward situation, all of these people seem really happy, and then your eyes would stray to the giant chalkboard menu full of local specials and you would find yourself anxious to get a teeny tiny table of your own. Or maybe you would notice none of this because you are still trying to figure out what is underneath that weird hatch in the floor.
What all of this comes down to is that the MRC loves to explore the strange borderland between awkward and cool. Eating there is like meeting a slightly off-putting 15-year-old kid who is wearing a grandpa sweater and listening to country music on vinyl; you aren’t sure whether to give it guidance or ask it for pointers. The whole dynamic is rather neatly captured by their choice of beverage containers:
On the left, you see a stroke of genius: awesome craft beers served in mason jars rather than pint glasses, creating a feel that is at once casual and cool. On the right, you have a pretty good cup of coffee (sourced from various local roasters, of course) served in what appears to be a failed middle school pottery project. I’m honestly puzzled how a restaurant with food this good could end up using china so hideous. (Did they specifically ask for the very worst pottery at the pottery store? If so, why? Am I just too tragically unhip not to understand this bold new trend? Is that handle on upside down? WHY??)
But let’s leave these quandaries aside and focus on the reason why you, like me, should be visiting this strange space on a regular basis: the food. MRC serves up beautiful ingredients in simple but excellent ways. Rather than over-complicate things, they focus on celebrating the flavor of what our local farms, dairies, and bakeries have to offer. The “Picnic Basket,” pictured at the top, is a stunning but simple example of this philosophy: beautiful cheeses from Sweetgrass Dairy, excellent cured meats, a lovely assortment of fruit compotes and vegetable marmalades, mustards, various house-made pickles, and crostini, served on an elegant wooden cutting board and portioned for two people to share. It is the kind of appetizer that is so varied and interesting that you might be tempted to order a second one in lieu of a main dish.
But skipping their entrees (or their salads!) would be a grave mistake. The salads are some of the best I’ve had in town, featuring fresh bright ingredients balanced in delightful ways. The kale salad is not to be missed, nor the citrus salad, pictured above, which features seasonal fruit along with arugula, shaved onions, blue cheese, and spiced pecans. I’ve also fallen in love with their melt-in-your-mouth short-ribs, dressed in a spicy barbecue sauce and paired with roasted potatoes and collard greens. And if you can catch it on the menu, the recurring rib-eye special is one of the best steaks I’ve had in town: crusty on the outside, rare on the inside (if you want it to be), served on a plate of earthy lentils and sugary snap-peas and smothered in a rich brandy cream sauce. Experience this kind of food a few times, and you might find yourself willing to brave the long wait that is sometimes required before you can get seated. (Sadly, they do not take reservations, so the wait will often be a required part of the experience.)
Finally, I can’t wrap up this review without talking about one of my favorite desserts in town, their buttermilk pound cake.
This pound cake would make all the other challenges of MCR worth it on its own. The cake is creamy on the inside with a nicely browned crust. It is served warm, on a plate dressed in strawberry-basil sauce, with barely sweet whipped cream on the side. It is like strawberry short-cake’s older, sophisticated cousin from the city: Not-too-sweet, complex, intriguing, and memorable. It is, in fact, so good that while you eat it you will be transported into a rare psychological state, the kind in which the other indignities* you might be enduring will fade into the background.
All in all, I think that desserts like this (or their awesome homemade ice creams), their other excellent dishes, and the generally positive atmosphere of the place make it worth enduring a little pain and suffering. If you, like me, are willing to suffer sometimes to experience the things that you love, maybe we will find ourselves sitting side by side someday soon, waiting for an hour or two to eat excellent food at a tiny little table in MCR’s cramped, overcrowded space.
* Such as, for example, the white man sporting an afro and enormous fluffy sideburns who was on MRC’s small stage, singing strangely good renditions of Latin classics, the last time I enjoyed this fine cake at MRC. He so moved the audience that a couple got up to dance, the lady in a dress and heels, the gentleman in baggy jeans and Five-Finger barefoot running shoes. Without the cake to serve as a psychic anchor, the weird vibes might well have driven me to madness.