“Do you know how our dishes work here at Roman’s?” the waiter intoned, bending over the table and sounding very much like a priest probing for a painful confession. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “The servings are small, so with two people, each of you should order one dish from each category.”
He gestured at a menu handwritten on graph paper. It listed two or three dishes in each of five unlabeled categories, which boiled down to apps and salads, pastas and soups, meat and fish, vegetables and more salads, and desserts. Since the menu changes completely every day at Roman’s, as the waiter further warned us, you’re guaranteed that every meal will be a unique experience. And, of course, since the bill of fare is never posted outside, just entering the restaurant on any given day requires a leap of faith.
Located in the old Bonito space on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Roman’s is a project of the team that brought you Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg. Apart from a similar arrangement of bar and tables, the room has been completely transformed. Lit by flickering votive candles, the walls are paved with white ceramic tiles; were it not for three colorful mosaics marching along one wall, the place might be mistaken for a bus-station bathroom. Though a pair of spacious communal tables are found in the rear, most of the seating is at tight two-tops, destined to be occupied by earnest dating couples puzzling over the menu while struggling to make themselves heard above the ungodly din.
Despite ordering confusion — and the bittersweet reflection that, if you adore a dish you’ve eaten, you’ll never see it again — the food at Roman’s can be spectacular. Composed salads are a mainstay of the first category. Sometimes these hang together (as in a beet salad with a cheese crouton, $8), sometimes they seem like random objects on a plate (as did a pile of roasted sunchokes set beside a wedge of caciocavallo cheese and thimble of floral-tasting honey, $7). Excellent dishes in this section have included fried whitebait (saltwater minnows) and a scrumptious onion frittata. More like the Virginia product than prosciutto, the house-cured ham was wonderful, but we found ourselves scraping the too-sweet mustard sauce off the top with a butter knife.
Early reports about Roman’s — which opened in mid-November — characterized it as an Italian restaurant, perhaps based on the evidence provided by section two, which mainly features pastas. These are the best part of the menu, even though the small size of the servings might drive you crazy. Take bucatini with clam sauce ($12): My date and I counted just eight long strands of pasta in the bowl after we’d sucked down the four tiny manila clams on top. The pasta was tasty, but this wasn’t a case of less equals more.
Chef Dave Gould delights in mutating traditional recipes, often with exciting results. One such offering is spaghetti in brodo ($10), where he deposits a fistful of slender noodles in a rich broth, then snows them with plenty of grated cheese. In Emilia-Romagna, this approach is associated with stuffed pastas. Speaking of stuffed pastas, the pumpkin tortellini were spectacular one evening. Striking up a conversation with a couple at the next table, we learned they’d returned to the restaurant to re-experience a ricotta-and-arugula ravioli they’d tasted the previous week but were disappointed to not find it on the menu. Apparently, they hadn’t listened to the priest-waiter’s lecture.
The third section features meat, poultry, and fish. One evening, a friend and I were flummoxed trying to apply the waiter’s advice that we order two dishes from each section, since there were only two dishes in that section and one was called “steak for two” ($30). We shrugged off that dilemma by ordering only the roast sturgeon ($15), though that left us one dish short. We were served three thick slices of sustainably sourced fish presented on a gravel of caramelized Brussels sprouts and crisp pancetta. The gravel easily outshone the fish.
The fourth section is vegetables and salads priced around $5, representing, somewhat ironically, the largest servings of anything we’d encountered at Roman’s. A butter lettuce salad was elegant in its sharp lemon vinaigrette, while steamed mustard greens were as good as in any soul food place. Lately, there’s been only one dessert in category five, a rich and slightly tart chocolate pudding. Once again, we had to scramble to figure out how to follow the waiter’s seemingly logical advice.