Serving up seven unique lunch buffets and an a la carte menu packed with exotic-sounding fare makes for a high-pressure kitchen at Rootz Hill's Grillhouse. But with an open kitchen that lets guests – or rather, the audience – take a peek behind the curtain, that pressure turns into culinary theater.
Helmed by executive chef Dennis Salenga, the first-ever Excellence in Culinary Arts and Restaurants Awards Chef of the Year winner, the Guam Plaza Resort and Spa's two-year-old restaurant takes an open dining concept to a new level, with the restaurant melting into the adjacent hotel lobby.
Rootz is nothing if not versatile, serving up a different cuisine every day of the week for its lunch buffet before busting out the big guns each night, from a tomahawk steak with a bone as long as your forearm, to delicate seafood dishes artfully garnished with locally grown herbs and veggies.
The restaurant can seat anywhere from 100 to 400 guests depending on how tables are set up, said chef de partie Efren Nuezca. The restaurant's versatility and openness also make for some great dinner theater, said sous-chef Tim Luy.
"They get to know more what we do, see where their food is coming from and how it's being prepared," Luy said. "It's almost like having a cooking demo."
For guests who want to really get close to the grill, Luy said they can even sit at the chef's work table - a giant marble counter separating the kitchen from the larger restaurant.
Salenga said it's important to have this close contact with guests.
"You need to know them like a family," Salenga said, in order to know what to put on the menu.
Nuezca said being watched as they work actually doesn't add pressure, but it does make what he calls their "live-action kitchen ... more consistent and even more precise."
The roots of Rootz
The restaurant's name will tell you what you need to know: Rootz, in honor of its island roots; Grillhouse, because of the restaurant's unique use of Japanese grills; and Hill, named for the Guam Plaza Resort's parent company – but also to bring a taste of Hollywood to the island.
"I wanted to see something more like in Beverly Hills," Salenga said. "A little more high-end."
It would seem they've succeeded.
Luy said they've hosted quite a few "influential" islanders, and even the manager from a nearby high-end steakhouse.
Salenga describes Rootz's dinner menu as European-Asian fusion, a style of cooking honed from several years of working with the island's favorite celebrity chef, Roy Yamaguchi, at Roy's Restaurant. Later, Yamaguchi helped Salenga get a job at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Southern California before he returned to Guam.
Aside from contributing to Salenga's culinary education, Yamaguchi also had an indirect hand in forming Salenga's team at Rootz: Luy and Nuezca met Salenga through Yamaguchi's kitchens.
Now, putting its own twist on Asian fusion, Rootz's menu puts a heavy emphasis on Guam, with a quarter of its produce coming from local growers, according to Luy.
Other meat and produce is flown in from Japan and the United States, including its gigantic steaks and what might be the sweetest tomatoes you'll ever eat.
Luy said supporting local growers is important to their staff. Plus, it doesn't hurt that on-island produce can be delivered in an hour.
"We depend too much on the off-island things," Luy said. "Hopefully more and more in years to come, we can have more (on-island produce)."
Rootz gets tomatoes, herbs, baby lettuce, peppers, corn, eggplant, cucumbers, bananas and more from right here on Guam. In fact, one of their growers also does the hotel's landscaping.
"It's more like teamwork," Salenga said, noting that growers work with their kitchen team, even growing new items requested by Salenga and his staff.
Back to the grill
Of course, local produce is only part of what makes Rootz what it is. The restaurant also uses two high-end Japanese robata grilling systems, using gas and charcoal.
"We do it right," Salenga said.
One of the grills uses an open, multi-tier system, which Salenga said allows different dishes to be cooked at the same time, each at different temperatures, and keeps food hot without getting burnt or overcooked.
Diners can choose to dine a la carte or opt for a prix fixe menu, which includes an appetizer, a choice of fish or meat entrée, and a dessert for $48. A la carte entrées range from a $26 game hen, layered with burnt herbs, spiced with lemon pepper and finished with a fish sauce caramel; to $75 for one of Salenga's "crafted signatures": a live Maine lobster served with crab dynamite béarnaise.
The main attraction, of course, runs a bit higher, though once you see the steaks Rootz offers, you won't wonder why.
Rootz's robata-grilled options range from $14 for a side of Norwegian salmon to $130 for a 26-ounce, 40-day-dry-aged porterhouse.
But if you're wondering which will impress your foodie followers more on Instagram, opt for the restaurant's signature 28-ounce tomahawk. Just make sure to clear enough room on the table first.
For more casual fare, guests can enjoy breakfast and lunch buffets seven days a week. From Sunday through Saturday, Rootz features a rotating lunch buffet, serving made-to-order hot salads, Japanese, Szechwan, Thai and mixed Asian cuisines, seafood and CHamoru dishes, each during separate days of the week.
Going the extra mile
The menu also offers chef-selected tasting menus, ranging from four to seven courses, with the option for wine pairings.
"Tasting is more like a surprise," Salenga said. "Whatever we have there, we make sure we have good quality."
Salenga said they strive to offer a versatile menu that works for all guests, who can choose the type of dining experience they're looking for thanks to their flexible a la carte options.
Even though this means more work, Salenga doesn't mind.
"It's more stressful," Salenga said, "but it's stressful for good."