Sushi and breakfast: A culinary mash-up at Chelsea's Back To The Roots
Several friends had told me about Back To The Roots (or BTTR, as they abbreviate it). But it was confusing because some described it as a sushi place, while others talked about a great breakfast destination. When I looked online I saw that BTTR is indeed an amalgam of sushi, breakfast, coffee and Ten Thousand Villages-style social venture.
A good mash-up (like Brangelina, Steampunk, and the Korean taco) can be American genius at its best. So right, and also so wrong. As for the mixed menus and social enterprise that is Back To The Roots, it's too early to tell on which side they will ultimately fall. I can say that the food part is quite tasty.
The front of BTTR is a fair-trade boutique selling earth-tone T-shirts, flowing skirts and ethnic jewelry. My understanding is that two couples have joined forces to run Back To The Roots, and one aspect of their social mission is to raise money to combat sex trafficking and child slavery in developing countries.
115 S. Main St., Chelsea
- Hours: 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.
- Plastic: All.
- Liquor: None.
- Prices: Moderate. Breakfast entrees $6-$8. Sushi rolls $5-$15.
- Noise level: Moderate.
- Wheelchair access:Yes.
When I made a dinner reservation for four on a recent Friday night, only a couple of other tables were taken. Behind the racks of T-shirts, in the space featuring exposed brick walls and plank floors once occupied by the Chelsea Gallery, I was glad to see the stunning hammered-copper hand-pull espresso machine still there and in use at the coffee bar.
The restaurant space has been given a tiki-mod facelift, complete with fake thatch roofs, photos of exotic lands, and parti-colored paper lanterns. Each table basks in the glow of a rock salt lamp and comes equipped with extremely comfy (and modern) chairs.
We started dinner by popping steamed edamame from their fuzzy pods. Bright green and sprinkled with coarse sea salt, the fresh-tasting soy beans were perfectly cooked. The Ahi Napoleon, dubbed "Japanese nachos" by Erin, was a leaning tower of crisp-fried wanton squares layered with seared tuna, avocado, seaweed salad and a wasabi aioli.
You have to give up on the need for decorous conveyance to your pie hole to enjoy the delicious interplay of textures and flavors in this dish — crunchy wanton, silky tuna, creamy aioli and tangy, chewy seaweed. It is messy, but I loved it even as I wondered if I was contributing to the extinction of the tuna species.
When we asked about the origins of the fish, and whether BTTR buys from sustainable sources, the waitress assured us that they do. But she had never heard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch or their Sushi Guide. I've learned that the fish at BTTR comes from True World Foods — an international distributor of seafood from Asia.
Similarly with the produce sourcing, we were assured that Back to the Roots is buying local produce, but no one seemed to know from which farms, except that the chicken comes from Miller's Amish Chicken. They said that they are using Eat Local Eat Natural, a local distributor for mostly meat and dairy products from farms in our region.
Moving on in the meal, we ordered the Chirashi Bowl, well-cooked short grain sushi rice topped with the chef's choice of fish. The toppings included sliced tuna, cooked shrimp, spicy tuna mix, a beautiful avocado rose, hamachi tuna and a large helping of that deliciously chewy shredded seaweed salad sprinkled with sesame seeds in a light sweet and sour dressing. The seaweed salad is featured in many of their dishes.
There are only a few mainstream choices for sushi by the piece, and the many sushi rolls on the menu are categorized (without explanation) as Signature Rolls, Specialty Rolls and Traditional Rolls. Many of the rolls feature tempura, tuna, avocado or all three. I'm a fan of each of those popular foods, but the reliance on a few mainstay ingredients made it a chore to read and re-read each roll's description to try to figure out how one differed from the others.
That said, all the rolls we tried were delicious. The Vegas "signature roll" was deep-fried, and included "California tempura" topped with seaweed salad, seared tuna, jalapeno, wasabi aioli and teriyaki sauce. The Caterpillar "specialty roll" had broiled eel, cucumber, and avocado. Among the "traditional rolls," we tried the Spicy California Roll and the Asparagus Roll. I appreciated both for the delicate snap of biting into tightly wrapped nori around a tasty filling.
While we were eating, we also found out about dinner specials of broiled salmon, along with roasted pork belly tacos and chicken tacos. Even though we were having sushi, we couldn't resist ordering the pork belly tacos — a soft corn tortilla wrapped around tender chunks of delicious slow cooked pork, with cilantro and onion.
The dessert menu is brief and includes rich and creamy long-keeping items that most restaurants have: tiramisu, creme brulee, and key lime pie. They also make what they call "Heavenly Wantons," deep fried mini egg rolls filled with either cream cheese and white chocolate, or bananas and brown sugar.
We shared a large order of the banana and brown sugar version. The deep-fried little hot pockets were appealingly crisp and brown, served in a pool of dark chocolate and white chocolate sauce. Unfortunately, I could discern little banana or brown sugar flavor.
For me, the odd amalgam of dishes encapsulates the good and the bad of the dinner entrees at Back To The Roots. On the positive side, the food is well-executed, delicious and seemingly good quality. However, the attempt to reach a lowest common denominator of trendy tastes by putting things like deep-fried sushi and pork belly tacos on the same menu seems to point to a lack of coherent vision. I got the sense that they are still experimenting to see what works.
I found the BTTR breakfast to be much more successful. The breakfast menu is very affordable and focused on carefully prepared traditional morning foods, like omelets, pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, oatmeal, muffins and scrambled eggs. The weirdest things on the breakfast menu were the Tofu Scramble and the Potatoes Bravas, both of which I ordered and both of which were delicious.
The Tofu Scramble was very similar to scrambled eggs. Tender curds of tofu mixed with big chunks of potato, along with spinach, onion and peppers came with a side of wheat toast. The mushrooms had an off flavor, but they were big enough to be picked out.
Our server told us that they use Zingerman's bread for their toast. Yum! And they serve it with a side of sweet butter and peach sauce.
The Potatoes Bravas, similar to the Spanish tapas dish, had big chunks of fried potato coated with a piquant red sauce with just a bit of spicy heat. Tender and delicious, my only complaint is that the potatoes were served barely warm.
One friend I was with ordered the buttermilk pancakes. I loved that they were substantial flapjacks and did not seem to be that travesty of pale cardboard cakes from a box mix. Big, hearty and wheaty, the golden brown pancakes came with a side of caramel-y apple raisin compote that my friend raved over.
My other friend got an omelet bursting with ham, cheese and spinach. Served with potatoes and toast, it was also delicious.
I ordered a coffee with my breakfast, and it turned out to be one of the best cups of coffee I've had. Served in a futuristic glass pitcher, the coffee tasted of blueberries, characteristic of my favorite Ethiopian Yrgachaffe. Using Square One Coffee roasted in Pennsylvania, they say they don't use any beans more than two weeks old. They offer a full selection of espresso-based drinks (using the lever-pull espresso machine) as well.
I have to compliment Back To The Roots on its breakfast. Everything we had was at least as good or better than I could make at home. Most breakfast foods are not hard to make, but it is very hard to find a restaurant that cares enough to make breakfast tasty and healthy. If it's affordable too, that's almost unheard of. Comparing it to Ann Arbor's benighted breakfast scene, I left the table feeling like I would drive to Chelsea for a breakfast that good.
Finally, the service at Back To The Roots was very friendly, if not overly efficient. Our pleasant servers coped gracefully with being peppered with questions and called in reinforcements if they didn't know the answers. A couple of times we waited what seemed like a long time for a beverage or a next course, but overall felt well-taken care of.
I put in several calls to try to reach the owners of Back To The Roots for additional information about their sourcing, vision and plans for expanding the restaurant space. And I would like to find out more about their social mission as well. But I haven't heard back from them. I also have a quibble about their website, since I couldn't find information there about their hours.
What I observed at Back To The Roots is a business that may be still trying to find its feet while it works out relationships and an experimental business structure with a social mission. But BTTR seems to have its heart in the right place.
And while the eclectic dinner was tasty, it was the more traditional breakfast that really won me over. In my estimation, their breakfast is honest good food, thoughtfully prepared. I get the sense that Chelsea appreciates those qualities as well.
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.