It’s been more than three years since chef-owner Ryan Shelton debuted Merchant Roots as an artisan food shop and two since he ditched that idea to transform the space into a fine dining restaurant. Of course, there’s been one global pandemic since then, which means this week will mark the restaurant’s relaunch as a collective dining experience, bringing diners indoors to enjoy a new menu with a playful theme — while the team’s still riding high on a heels of its recent inclusion in the California Michelin Guide for the first time.
Starting Wednesday, October 20, Shelton and the Merchant Roots team will launch a menu that starts with a mug of grog (ok, so it’s actually green chile mulled wine) and ends with magic stone and carrot mousse and cake. All nine courses borrow from Stone Soup, the classic European folktale that tells the story of how sharing can result in something better than the sum of its parts. And though Shelton admits he doesn’t have any particularly attachments to the book, he says he’d been “noodling” on the idea of a menu inspired by fairytales and folklore since before he opened Merchant Roots. The down time brought on by the pandemic finally created time for him to bring it to life. “I was so bored, I honestly started thinking about old ideas and how to flesh them out,” Shelton says with a laugh.
The result is dishes that riff on the idea of “stone and water becoming much more than they seem,” he says, and that lean a little magical thanks to playful touches of trompe-l’œil. For instance there’s an amuse bouche of smoked tomato soup and grilled cheese — except the soup is tomato water that’s extracted to be crystal clear and the sandwich is baked in edible clay. The course comes in a custom-made vessel with more “rocks” adhered to the bottom, so diners will be presented with what looks like a bowl of plain water and rocks. Additional courses include an onion salad with an everything “bagel” onion ring, miso-glazed rock cod in shisho lemongrass nage, carrot curry with crispy pork belly, and a sweet potato souffle that’s served in a brown marbled concrete bowl — view the full menu below.
The theatrics go beyond the plate, too. The meal begins outside, where guests are welcomed as “weary travelers,” Shelton says, with a bite of trail mix. Then they’ll venture inside where Shelton has deconstructed the eight-seat table that formerly hosted Merchant Roots’ communal indoor dinners. In light of the pandemic and the lack of interest in the communal dining, Shelton literally took an ax to the handsome, custom-made wood table to break out four two-person tables, which he arranged in a circle around a faux-hearth and pot. It was a necessary sacrifice, the chef says. “I love this table. But when you’re a business owner and you have a bottle neck in front of you, you’ll get loved ones out of the way, but anything else? You’re going straight through it.”
The Stone Soup menu will run from now until February 19, 2022 with the nine-course tasting menu costing $134, plus an additional $83 for an optional wine pairing. Shelton says he’s also planning to bring back the Chef’s Circle in the new year, a sort of members’ club for Merchant Roots super-fans that grants early access to booking, a “couple little gifts,” and — perhaps most importantly — the right to vote on what menus the team will tackle in the coming months. Shelton says the input from diners is part of what he loves about the intimate dining format at Merchant Roots, which offers just two seatings, four or five nights a week. “I don’t find exclusivity fun,” he says. “Though I see the appeal.” Instead he says he landed on the idea of theme-driven menus and experiential dinners, which grew out of pop-ups he hosted in the space back when it was still an artisan food shop, as a way for him to practice his craft and keep diners excited to come back for more. “I opened my heart up to people and showed them who I am,” he says. “It was like, ok, this is the most fun thing. Let’s do this.”
Reservations are required and now available for the Stone Soup menu at Merchant Roots on Tock.