Roman's in Fort Greene: Excellent Dishes On Shaky Ground
"Several of these plates were memorable, even remarkable—but we can't go back for them."
243 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11205 (at Vanderbilt; map); 718-622-5300; romansnyc.com
Service: Gracious, if slow
Setting: Now-familiar New Brooklyn
Compare It To: Al Di La, Diner
Must-Haves: Stracchino, house-cured ham, and agnolotti, if on the menu—but they probably won't be
Cost: $8 apps, $10 pastas, $14-$24 small entrees
Grade: B (some dishes merit higher)
There are two reasons, as I see it, to read a review: the broad strokes and the details.
We write to impart some general impressions—what we think of the chef, what we think of the setting—but also to recommend or advise against certain dishes. Presumably, you'd like to know whether a given plate is worth your money or your time.
In the case of Roman's, the newly opened Italian-spirited restaurant in Fort Greene, we can't help you there. There's no standing menu—the dishes, all of them, rotate each night. Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow's other restaurants (Diner, Marlow & Sons) employ similar conceits, but each has at least a skeleton menu; regulars can have a fallback. The same can't be said of Roman's, where, each night, the day's menu is scribbled out on graph paper for diners to decipher. (Older eyes or those stuck with a hastily scrawled sheet may find this a problem.)
A seasonally inspired, seasonally rotating menu is all but expected in New York restaurants of late. It allows a chef to play to his strengths—his own skills, the ingredients at his disposal. But when taken this far, the lack of a baseline menu can be a disservice to the customer.
A restaurant pulls off a rotating menu when a diner can go in with absolute confidence that each dish that appears will be phenomenal—and of a portion and value that doesn't disappoint. Roman's isn't quite at that level. There's plenty worth eating—and plenty that evidences chef Dave Gould's sure hand in the kitchen. But without a record of unerring excellence, it's hard to recommend Roman's wholeheartedly. You just can't know what you're going to get.
I'd send anyone to Roman's for the baked stracchino ($8), a funky, intensely creamy cow's milk cheese with only olive oil, salt and pepper swirled in. Served warm—soft, bubbling, all too easy to spoon up—it's the kind of cheese that you'll start off daintily spreading on bread and end up plunging your fork into, almost against your conscious will. (Or, if you're feeling more decorous, order more of the toasted, oiled bread—you'll need it.) Our little cauldron sat on the table through three courses and held up remarkably well—firming up as it cooled, of course, but neither separating nor stiffening. Even lukewarm, it's a pot of gold.
Dave Gould doesn't shy away from bold flavors or handfuls of salt, both evident in the salt cod ($7). Not for the pescaphobic, these crostini sit right at the edge of too salty—but they're pulled back from the brink, tamed by the earthy chickpeas and crushed tomatoes. I loved every bite, but those less enamored of the ocean may not.
House-cured ham ($9), salty but still soft to the tooth, had an appealing herbal, grassy flavor that really made one wonder what that pig had been eating.
Celeriac and pear salad ($7) with hazelnut butter was a curious union of taste and texture that came together beautifully.
Pastas, holding down the middle third of Roman's menu, were a mixed bag. First to disappear were the agnolotti ($10), a supple pasta filled with short rib and bone marrow—meaty and satisfying, though less so than they could be, given the richness of those ingredients. And when the dollar count of the dish equals the dumpling count in your bowl... well, those little guys start to look an awful lot pricier.
Tagliarini ($10) were tossed in a perfectly edible but utterly unremarkable ragu, indistinguishable from that of any Little Italy red-sauce joint.
The baked garganelli ($10)—very baked, some of them—were hard to identify as a pasta course, so hidden were the buckwheat noodles within the potatoes and melted Fontina. On first bite, I would have thought this a potato casserole to accompany the meats, not a pasta dish. That said, it was cheesy, well-seasoned, and incredibly appealing. This is a chef who understands the primal appeal of gooey cheese and ample salt, and many dishes are the better for it.
The least successful dish was the beef leg with red wine and pepper ($14)—chewy, unflavorful meat whose pooling fat drowned out every other taste but the peppercorns (which had all the subtlety of a car alarm).
Lamb chops ($24) were perfect in their simplicity, as full-flavored and tender as one could imagine. But for that price, one might expect a fleshed-out entree—not two dainty, unadorned chops, however tasty. It's hard to estimate portion sizes on a rotating menu.
I could eat roasted carrots and turnips ($5) every day until spring and not tire of them. These were perfectly browned and charmingly sweet, but as an add-on side, they disappeared too quickly; a few more wouldn't have hurt.
Cold, refreshing cabbage ($5) was perfectly adequate, but neither paired particularly well with either main nor lent any interesting flavor of its own.
For dessert one night, just a chocolate sorbet ($6)—but one whose blast of salty chocolate had this writer, a fruitless sorbet skeptic, all but licking the bowl.
More highlights than disappointments, to be sure. And the restrained portions (well, except for that cheese pot) let one eat through three or four courses without a strain on the stomach—though some on the wallet.
But despite many trappings of higher-end dining (dainty plates, chef-driven menu), Roman's wants to be a neighborhood restaurant. And part of the appeal of a neighborhood restaurant is its predictability. One shows up and knows exactly what to expect; whereas at Roman's, inconsistencies mean that one never quite knows what to expect. Dinner as a gamble seems somewhat unsettling—even when many of the payoffs are impressively high.
It's this writer's opinion that even the barest sketch of a stable menu, in the model of Diner or Marlow and Sons, would benefit Roman's enormously. There are quite a few dishes I'd return for. Except, well, I can't.
Ed Levine is off this week.