Restaurant Review: Roìa, New Haven

 

★½ [Good-Very Good]

Like many art, history and architecture buffs, I had been following with great interest the most recent renovation of the centuries-old Taft hotel building in New Haven. Purportedly it was to be very grand. Although the grand marble staircase has been removed, according to press releases, this made the ground floor more amenable to dining—and not to worry, the magnificent coffered ceiling restored to its former glory still soared above, and the original marble tile floor (extricated from layers of linoleum) awaited the tread of our feet. The incoming restaurant, called Roia, sounded interesting, too. Named for a river that runs between Italy and France, it would serve French and Italian fare. I could hardly wait.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to. Before the announced opening, a friend and I were hurrying along College Street en route to grab a bite before a show. When we saw Roìa’s red awning, we looked in. They were serving. The traditional “soft opening.” Although we had only a little time, we went in, sampled a few dishes and newly on the lookout for glamour, I vowed to return.

Visually, Roìa does indeed evoke a golden era when romance reigned and glamour glittered. The first-floor dining room and bar  referencing a dusky hotel dining room with potted palms and dark polished wood in a far-flung corner of the empire makes it easy to imagine Humphrey Bogart, slouching, cigarette in hand, at that table over there. The ballroom on the second floor, visible through an atrium, is gorgeous, with a forest of snow-white Greek Revival pillars, floor-to-ceiling windows elegantly swagged and Queen Anne chairs. With an upstairs bar and white-tablecloth seating on the mezzanine, it’s an impressive venue for special events. The ornate ceiling, lavish with intricately sculpted bas relief motifs, is Roìa’s crowning glory. It’s worth a stroll upstairs for a closer look.

On my first visit, I was mesmerized by the decor and seduced by a glorious whole steamed artichoke with house-made aioli, and a luscious braised duck leg and thigh. When I returned a few weeks later with friends to do a full-scale review, a lot had changed. There was a brand-new menu, the waitress announced. Gone without a trace was the duck confit and the whole artichoke. “Sformatino of leek” had become carrot soufflé. Tagliarini with truffle oil and black pepper, too, was a thing of the past. I was vaguely disappointed but fast-changing menus are almost obligatory in today’s impatient channel-surfing world, and my friends, of course, did not know what I was missing. So we talked old movies (Steve’s a fan) and perused the new bill of fare.  

Dorothy was delighted to find chicken al mattone, aka chicken under a brick, on offer as an entrée. She makes it the way her grandmother did using an actual brick wrapped in aluminum foil. The menu listing, I figured, must indicate the use of a modern Italian-made two-piece ceramic chicken press. The fact is that making this simple-sounding dish (whole chicken butterflied, drumsticks tucked into slits in the skin, heavily weighted), is not as easy as it might seem. It is, however, incredibly crispy and delicious when classically prepared. But it’s almost never made the old-fashioned way and Roìa was no exception. Although the waiter claimed a brick was involved, what arrived on the plate was not a whole or half chicken but just thin slices of roasted chicken breast, not particularly crispy—more of a chicken paillard. Not bad, but not chicken al mattone.  

We had nothing but praise for an outstanding artichoke soup, one of those wonderfully nuanced brews that home cooks find hard to emulate because restaurant chefs have so many ingredients at hand. Because we had expressed an interest in sharing the soup, our waitress volunteered to serve us each a small portion in a demitasse cup. Result? Mass seduction by soup. Note: A good restaurant should be obliging and throughout our meal Roìa was unfailingly helpful—not just with us but with others, including two couples with a baby in a carriage stashed safely away in a secluded corner. There’s a certain luxury in not being rushed, and we reveled in it, sipping wine and chatting until a heavenly chicken liver mousse arrived. Vacuum-poached and served in its thick glass sous vide cooking jar, it was outrageously rich and heady under a snowy layer of fat—a king’s ransom (enough for four)—served with toast points and pickled onion. For $8. Add bang-for-the-buck to the list of Roìa’s attractive attributes.

House-made duck prosciutto, a bit dry and too salty for my taste, paired nicely with frisée and dandelion greens dressed with sweet balsamic vinaigrette.  

According to the menu, a pasta entrée listed as buccatini with clams consists of “house-made extruded pasta with saffron sauce, fresh herbs and lemon.” Steve, who’d ordered the dish eagerly, dug in and came up with a question. Where are the clams? He fished around, I fished around. We found three tiny snippets that might have been pieces of clam but had very little taste, as did the dish as a whole, saffron being in short supply.

The fish of the day, dorado, arrived whole and startlingly large, tail flopping over one edge of the plate, head lolling over the other. It was clearly more than enough for one person but I had hearty eaters with me and I asked the waiter to fillet the fish for us so that we could share. He took the plate and trotted off, not to the kitchen but to an empty table, where he worked away, bent over his task. What he brought back, we regarded with dismay. “I’m not really good at this,” he said, “but I think I got all the bones out.” Not to belabor the point, but he did not, thereby making the chopped-up pieces of fish too hazardous to enjoy.

But Roìa is virtually brand-new and, to be fair, a new restaurant should be cut a little slack until it gets its act together—especially if it’s trying. And Roìa is trying hard. They make their own pasta, they cure their own charcuterie and they make their own desserts: panna cotta, rice pudding with salted caramel and roasted pistachio nuts, flourless chocolate cake and gelato in exotic flavors that were fun to try—bourbon, lavender, cherry, mint. Add the glamour of the space, soaring ceiling, romantic banquettes, faux-vintage fare and nostalgic cocktails, given time Roìa could shine.  
 

Roìa
261 College St., New Haven, 203/200-7045, roiarestaurant.com
Dinner Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday 5:30 to 9, Friday and Saturday till 9:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6 to $12, entrées $18 to $28, desserts $7 to $9.

 

Restaurant Review: Roìa, New Haven

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