Stephen Fries — Chef Avi Szapiro of Roia on the power of food
I recently caught up with Avi Szapiro, owner and executive chef of Roia Restaurant & Cafe in New Haven. His culinary career has taken him around the world (Paris and Lyon, France; Barcelona, Spain; Bogota, Colombia; London, England; Mumbai, India; Oakland, California; New York City) working in well-respected restaurants, a few with the prestigious Michelin Star.
How did you end up in New Haven?
One consulting project took me to New Haven’s historic Taft Apartment Building, which had been built as the Taft Hotel in 1912. I was asked to consult for a restaurant that was currently in the space and not doing so well. I fell in love with the space, which was originally the hotel’s grand dining room, and saw an opportunity to restore and re-invigorate it, which in turn would to contribute to the economic and cultural development of downtown New Haven. So, my wife, Meera, and I moved into the Taft, eleven floors above the restaurant space, to begin the extensive renovation that would result in March 27, 2013’s debut of Roia Restaurant & Café.
It was a great culinary experience tasting the “favorite” dishes that have been enjoyed by your customers over the past five years. Please explain the menu that you created to celebrate the restaurant’s five year anniversary.
We looked at what were the most popular dishes since we opened. We talked to our regulars and asked them what were their favorites, and then selected their favorites from this season. From there, we tailored the menu for end of the winter, aiming to please and also to remind people of some dishes they loved in the past. We will be offering other tasting menus which will also include favorites highlighting spring, summer and Fall. There were two different 5-course tasting menus, one being vegetarian, with a wine pairing option. This is what was served:
Fluke crudo with truffle-lime vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts and chives; caramelized fennel and honey goat cheese with cured black olives and citrus vinaigrette (for this recipe, visit https://bit.ly/2K2OiAQ); housemade rosemary and black pepper pappardelle pasta with hen ragu and castelvetrano olives and marjoram; braised beef cheek with “La ratte” potato mousseline, thyme Cipollini and natural jus; saffron pear croustillant with crispy meringue, Chantilly and pistachios.
Vegetarian menu: Roasted and raw beets with honey lime emulsion, pistachios and microgreens; crispy poached egg with warm spinach, watercress, pickled red onions and gorgonzola dolce (recipe below) ; homemade gnocchi with brown butter and sage; roasted and stuffed butternut squash with ragu of lentils, Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, roasted garlic puree and citrus emulsion; chocolate pave with hazelnut mousse.
What is the significance of the name Roia?
It is the name of the river that runs between France and Italy, the cuisines that inspire the restaurant’s menu.
How would you describe the concept of Roia?
Roia showcases seasonally informed food, inspired by French and Italian cuisines and rooted in local sourcing. It is food that delivers maximum flavor with a minimum of ingredients; food that combines culinary restraint with dynamic creativity.
In a nutshell, what is your philosophy on food and dining?
Treat food with the highest respect. Food has incredible power, use it well. It can be a great vehicle for creating community, joy, security, health and peace. Abuse it or disrespect it and it can create anxiety, sickness, unrest and devastating anger. With respect to dining, it goes back to the power of food. Our intention at Roia is to uplift our guests. For that we focus on being welcoming, knowledgeable, and selective of the product we are using. We put that all together with a little creativity to uplift and nourish our guests.
What do you feel is the next big trend in dining?
More vegetable-driven fast-casual concepts.
My cabinet has room for only three condiments or spices. What should they be?
Salt, Sicilian pepperoncino, black pepper.
Surely you are inundated with compliments on your cooking. What’s the most memorable and from whom, if you remember?
Compliments from young kids are always humbling and memorable. They always tell it like it is. So even when they don’t like something it is a kind of compliment, because when they share their experience and it rings truth, and it engages them in conversation about food, then that is a high compliment. My other favorite compliment was from one of our regulars. After several visits, she told me that the main reason she comes to Roia, beyond the great food, service and ambiance, is because she feels great not just immediately but the next day after having eaten at Roia. Since my goal is to uplift and nourish our guests, that compliment meant a lot to me.
What changes do you foresee to keep your restaurant fresh and exciting?
Our menu changes seasonally and that means a pretty significant change sometimes every month. So that always keeps things fresh and exciting for us and for our guests.
What is your secret on your most productive days?
Take the time to start the day right. Meaning, if I can have a contemplative moment in the morning before I start my day, ideally with meditation, it is a good way to be refreshed and have clarity of mind.
When you just want to prepare something simple, quick and delicious, what would you make?
Avocado salad with a fried egg.
Rapid fire: Ketchup or mustard?
Chocolate or vanilla?
Coffee or tea?
Burger or hot dog?
What are some of your most memorable moments around the table?
Shabbat dinner with my family growing up. During a five-day meditation retreat eating in silence. Dining with my friends from high school. Industry nights out.
Aside from Roia, what are some of your favorite dining spots?
August in New Haven. Hemlock in NYC, L’Astrance in Paris, Andres Carne de Res in Bogota, Swati Snacks in Mumbai.
How would you describe the current dining scene in Greater New Haven?
It gets better and better every day. We have a great dedicated and committed community who are passionate for the industry.
When did you begin thinking about a career as a chef?
When I was 13 years old I discovered my passion for cooking in the family kitchen. I became enthralled by experimenting with recipes and began to recognize the power of food, how it brings people together and how it is at the heart of so much of life’s most memorable moments.
When I was 15, I was thinking in terms of cooking professionally, but was also drawn to the notion of a law career. Indeed, with high school graduation pending, I was torn, and my mother suggested I intern at a restaurant and at a law firm to gain clarity. At the conclusion of the exercise, I knew the direction of my future.
What do you find so appealing about your profession?
Feeding people, making people happy, watching how food can transform people.
Thinly slice the red onion and soak completely in the red wine vinegar for at least 1 hour to pickle the onion.
Make an egg-wash by cracking one egg into a small bowl and whisk the egg well. Set aside.
Fill a medium size, deep pot ¾ of the way, and bring water up to a boil and season the water with salt and white wine vinegar.
Prepare an ice bath.
When water comes to a boil, swirl the water in the pot and crack the other two eggs, one at a time, into the water to be poached. Cook eggs for
1 ½ minutes. Remove and cool immediately in the ice bath.
Once eggs are cooled, remove the eggs from the ice bath and dry with a cloth or paper towel.
Bread the poached eggs by dipping it in the egg-wash, then in flour, back to the egg-wash and then the panko breadcrumbs.
Heat 6 ounces of the olive oil olive oil in a frying pan and carefully place the egg in the oil to pan-fry the egg. When the egg has reached a golden brown color, flip the egg and continue cooking until golden brown. Remove the egg from the pan, and set it on some paper towel season with salt and pepper.
Wash and spin the greens to get any moisture out. Combine the extra virgin olive oil with a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning. Reserve. Heat the remaining two ounces of oil in a frying pan. While the oil is heating, combine the greens with half of the Gorgonzola. Shut off heat and put greens and half of the Gorgonzola in the pan, stir to warm up. Remove and plate the greens in two separate plates, add the pickled red onions and remaining Gorgonzola to both plates. Place 1 egg on each plate on top of the warm greens, serve.
Consiglio’s Cooking Demonstration and Dinner: April 25, 6:30 p.m., Consiglio’s Restaurant, 165 Wooster St., New Haven, 203-865-4489 (reservations required), $75 (beverages, tax and gratuity not included). Learn how to make center cut lamb over creamy orzo, calamari and arugula salad, homemade linguine with white clam sauce, chocolate raspberry panna cotta.
Worth Tasting Culinary Walking Tour: 10:45 a.m. April 28, the first guided four-hour culinary walking tour of the season of downtown New Haven. Reservations required, tickets at http://bit.ly/2FjiwMP, 203-415-3519, 203-777-8550, $64.
A Taste of Greece, May 5, 11 a.m.- 7 p.m., Saint Barbara Church Social Hall, 480 Racebrook Road, Orange, 203-795-1347. Features the well-known cuisine of the church. Treat your taste buds to Moussaka, Spanakopita, Gyro, Pastitsio, Greek Salad, Souvlaki, Baklava, Greek coffee. Enjoy a glass of wine or beer with your meal. Eat-in or Take-out. Food Items range from $4 to $13. Dessert from $1 to $3. Free admission and free parking. www.saintbarbara.org
The Art of Pairing Wine and Cheese, May 8, 6-7:30 p.m., Caseus Fromagerie Bistro, 93 Whitney Ave., New Haven, 203-624-3373, $45. Ever wonder just how we come up with our pairings and why they work? Join us as we demystify the art of pairing. Tickets at https://bit.ly/2JYkzcl.