I can’t tell you how many people have said I should do a blog post on the new restaurant Roia. Seriously, I’ve lost count. They ooh and aah about the food. They go on and on about the renovation. They talk about its great location, right next door to the Shubert Theater. So I went to find out for myself.
Chef Avi Szaprio and his wife Meera Laube-Szapiro were living in Brooklyn after several years abroad, and Avi was consulting. One of his clients brought him to New Haven for a project that fell through. Good thing, because instead, on of the owners of the Taft building, Francis Moezinia, asked Avi to take on a once majestic but now sad space. The floors were hidden by tattered, ancient linoleum. The period details had been obscurred by disco-era modernization.
“A lot of people ask us why we chose New Haven for this project,” Meera says, “but we tell them New Haven chose us. Avi fell in love with the space and said he would do it if he could do it right, which meant doing a big renovation. This [space] has always been a restaurant ever since the Taft Hotel. When the building was first built this space was the grand dining room of the Taft Hotel. And ever since it has been a restaurant or a club.”
Meera continues, “The main intention of the renovation was to honor the original space. The reclaiming of the 100-year-old tile floors; the walls are the original white oak paneling.” Avi recalls what a risk it was, “You never know until you actually clean and buff [the floor] whether the mosaic would come back to life. Similarly with the walls, you can’t strip a little, you have to go all the way.” It took four months of demolition and six months of construction before they were ready to open last March 27.
Avi is from Bogota, Colombia, where he first started working in kitchens. In the late 1990′s he moved to France to learn the language and do his apprenticeship. He explored the French culinary schools but he found he liked the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America better, and graduated there in 1999. He went to California to work with Chez Panisse alum Paul Bertoli at Oliveto, learning about sustainability and seasonality. Then on to London to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Foliage Restaurant, where they received a Michelin star a year after it opened. He returned to the U.S. taking on consulting work. Somewhere in between he had a truffle business (the fungus, not the confection), but then found a more permanent home for nine years as executive chef at the SYDA Foundation in upstate New York, a non-profit that teaches meditation around the world. Not only did he travel to Mumbai, India to revamp the retreat-site kitchen, but while at the Foundation he met Meera. Together, they moved back to New York to start consulting again, finally landing in New Haven.
Roia is named after a river between France and Italy, and the food is rooted in French and Italian cuisine, changing seasonally, and often coming from local farms.
The pastas and the deserts, two of their daily, house-made items, are particularly popular. Both use unusual ingredients, like rosemary in the pasta or whiskey and bourbon in the sorbets and gelatos.
Roia is an elegant setting for an event. “The upstairs space is perfect for weddings, parties, receptions, and corporate events as well,” Avi says. Meera adds, “The upstairs can hold 60 – 80 for seated dinners and the entire venue holds 175.”
The Szapiros are already looking forward to opening for breakfast and lunch, with Sunday brunch up first. They’ll also be adding outdoor seating, but honestly, there isn’t a better view than the stellar interior that brings you back to that stately, 20th century hotel.
Restaurant Website: http://roiarestaurant.com/
• The Detes: 261 College St. New Haven. 203-200-7045. Wednesday through Sunday 5:30 p.m. -10 or 11 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday.
• Price Range: Appetizers and salads $7-13, house-made pastas $9 (half-portion)-22, entrees $16-28, desserts $7-12.
• Style of Food: The food is rooted in French and Italian cuisine, seasonally inspired.
• Favorite dishes: the whole grilled fish, the vegan warm salad of leek and lentil vinaigrette, steak frites, duck confit, lamb shoulder, Stonington fluke crudo
• Drinks: Full bar; cocktails that reflect the era of the space and old Europe; the wines are all French and Italian
• Vegetarian/Gluten Free available: Yes, one of the most popular dishes is vegan
• Outdoor seating: Coming soon!
• Events: Absolutely