According to Roìa’s website, the College St. restaurant takes its name from a river which crisscrosses the border between Southern France and Northern Italy. Roìa’s menu pays homage to cuisines of both regions, as the restaurant features everything from pasta to confit. All in all, there’s a little too much purple prose spent on the French Riveria, all of which ignores the fact that you will actually be eating in the gray Connecticut coast. Nevertheless, the food makes the affectations well worth it.
While occasionally frustrating, Roìa’s fastidiousness serves a larger fantasy. The restaurant aims to offer a specific kind of food, but also in a specific style. In this case, that means food from the South of France, and specifically old-fashioned food from that region. The menu has no foams, fusions or gastronomic flights of fancy. Instead, there are hearty soups, buttery entrees, and (if you want some, which you do) sides of pomme frites.
Housed in the hundred-year-old former Taft Hotel, Roia’s white-painted and wood-finished dinning room serves that goal as it evokes a restrained, mannered decadence. This isn’t the South of France of racecars and Gucci bags; it’s the South of France of an earlier era, of the lost generation and Tender is the Night. I don’t know if any era is significantly less realistic and/or problematic to fantasize over, but Roìa makes its stake clear: Here, we want you to feel like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief, not Selena Gomez in Monte Carlo.
Last Friday, my friend and I tried out Roìa’s restaurant week lunch menu, which featured a choice of appetizer, entrée and desert for $18. Fair warning: on a typical lunch day, that $18 is only enough for one of the non-fancy meat entrées (you could get a burger, but no steak frites).
The appetizers, vinaigrette of leeks with sieved egg and cream of mushroom soup, split the difference between experimentation and tradition respectively. Sieving an egg produces a collection of white and yellow granules, which the chef dusted across a leek poached to buttery translucence . My friend described the taste as “a bit different, but good,” which covers about all the adjectives you need.
The soup, on the other hand, was both exactly as expected and entirely satisfying. It retained a satisfying mushroom flavor — the ingredients must have been fresh — while embracing a warm creaminess. Perfect for a cold day on the Monaco coast, or any day in Connecticut.
Roìa offered up a sandwich of duck confit and gnocchi a la bolognese for main courses. The duck confit was where I expected the restaurant to swerve — confit is seen as a stodgy menu item today and restaurants typically “update” the French classic if they serve it — but the meal leaned old-fashioned yet again. The shredded duck came with tarragon mayo, surprisingly light for a dish that requires cooking with an immense amount of fat, but nonetheless successful. The only fault lay in the bread — toasted ciabatta — which was cut too thickly, and gave the sandwich a ratio of about three times as much bread as duck.
Our other choice was gnocchi a la bolognese, or gnocchi in beef ragù. The gnocchi were cooked to perfection — slightly al dente, gummy when you bit into them, but never so much so that you had to exert effort as you chewed. And the ragù, creamier than your typical meat sauce, equaled the richness of the gnocchi without making the dish overly decadent.
The restaurant week menu left us with the rather unexciting prospect of pear sorbet for dessert. The sorbet was light and sweet, an ephemeral endnote after a meal of heavy, creamy dishes, but I do wish that some of Roìa’s other dessert options (which include panna cotta and rice pudding) were on the literal and metaphorical table. I wanted to eat the desserts, yes, but I also wanted an excuse to stay in the restaurant, ignoring the time as I idly chatted with a good friend, before we had to go our separate ways in the gloomy November afternoon.
Fitzgerald was right: If you spend too much time in the South of France, most other things, inevitably, disappoint.