“This dinner and, really, the whole series of these dinners is an ode to our farmers,” says Avi Szapiro, executive chef for ROÌA in New Haven, when asked about the intent behind his restaurant’s summer kick-off of their “vegetable-centric” dinner series. Each entry in the series – which began last night – focuses on a single type of locally grown vegetable, exploring the great variety of preparation styles and flavors it can present over the course of 4-5 dishes.
Szapiro opened ROÌA in 2013, renovating and occupying the historic Taft Hotel (built in 1912), adjacent to the green and Yale University in downtown New Haven. His mission as a chef has always been to share his love of food with his community. “Food is a great vehicle for joy, so long as it is driven well,” says Szapiro. A fan of Indian scripture, he recounts the wisdom that, when treated the right way, food is medicine; when treated the wrong way, it becomes poison.
It is his desire to drive that vehicle “the right way” that pushes Szapiro to draw upon so many local and sustainable farms for his kitchen. He regularly purchases produce and meat from New Haven Farms, Orchard Farms, Massaro Farms, Hall Farms, Yale Farm, Four Root Farm, and Walden Hill. “Food is vital for nourishing us,” says Szaprio, “but it also can nourish and support our communities. The power of food to do good extends into so many different areas.”
Szapiro’s idea for the vegetable-centric series came to fruition last year, when he highlighted regional favorites like asparagus, summer squash, and tomatoes, each in their own multi-course meal. The tomato dinner proved popular, enough so that the first dinner in this year’s series celebrates it in encore.
This year’s heirloom tomato dinner is broad in its flavorful scope, highlighting the incredible range of taste, color, and textual variety of which Connecticut’s tomatoes are capable. The amuse bouche opens the door to these flavors with slivered, sun-dried tomatoes atop house-made tomato ricotta, preparing the palate for the wave of tomato-themed dishes to come.
It is shortly followed by a salad of heirloom tomatoes with sides of burrata and eggplant purée, which introduces a theme that will resonate through the rest of the dinner’s courses: that each component of the dish, delicious on its own, finds its flavor extended and enhanced through its combination with the others. Here, that results in a dish that is grounded and earthy, yet also fruity and bright; truly, a testament to the range of the humble tomato.
The second course delivers a tomato and rose water consommé with hamachi and sous vide cherry tomatoes that is deeply floral, light, and refreshing. Garnished with wild-foraged wood sorrel and edible flowers, it plays to the diner’s nose without overwhelming it.
Perfectly al dente noodles follow in the third course of homemade tajarin, smoked tomatoes, and sea urchin. A younger palate could be forgiven for thinking it to be the world’s best ramen; in fact, the savory, umami taste, carried by an undercurrent of tart and smoky tomatoes, is deserving of its own category.
The penultimate course is truly the highlight of the menu, bringing a trio of tomato tastes to the plate (in the form of tomato relish, tomato butter, and fried green tomatoes) that serve as the perfect complement to grilled Walden Hill pork loin. It’s hard to imagine pork ever being the afterthought, but here it very nearly does play second best to the amazing tomato productions that accompany it. Thankfully, diners don’t have to choose; none of it should be missed.
The five-course dinner closes with lemon verbena panna cotta, crowned with sungold tomato jam, and garnished with mint and edible flowers. It has an excellently tempered sweetness that is rare in desserts, balancing the strong citrus of the lemon verbena against the less sharp sugars of the delicious sungold tomatoes.
As a whole, the dinner and wine pairings provide a welcome break from the usual “hangover” of richness and heaviness that is so common in multi-course meals. The focus on tomatoes lends a spectrum of unique tastes to each dish, yet keeps the final product both light and satisfying.
There are still two nights to enjoy this menu; ROÌA is offering it on Friday, August 26, and Saturday, August 27, as well. Diners are advised to call ahead to ensure table availability. More information about the dinner can be found here.
But if you missed this one, it won’t be the last. Szapiro is planning more, as the Connecticut vegetable harvest rolls into fall, including possible features on corn, eggplant, winter squash (such as pumpkin, butternut, and others), or mushrooms (both wild-foraged and farmed). Whatever vegetable Szapiro may choose to highlight, it is sure to be representative and supportive of the best of New England’s locally grown food. “I expect that we’ll have used over 200 pounds of tomatoes by the time we’re done with the third night of this dinner,” Szapiro says. That’s an ode that farmers are always happy to listen to.
ROÌA is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30am-2pm for lunch, 5pm-Close for dinner, and Sunday, 10:30am-2pm for brunch, 4:30pm-7:30pm for supper.
> ROÌA; 261 College St., New Haven; 203-200-7045; roiarestaurant.com