Food

Romera: Looking Back at the Brief Life of New York’s Neurogastronomy Restaurant

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Over the weekend, Romera, the “neurogastronomy” restaurant located in the basement of the Dream Hotel, shuttered after only six months in business. For those who had eaten at the restaurant recently, the news didn’t come as any big surprise. Although the chef, Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera, had modified his original concept, eliminating some of the flavored waters and adding lower-priced menu options, it was to no avail. As a visit to the restaurant this past month can attest, when only three diners patronize your spot on a Friday night, you’re bound for trouble.

The restaurant’s official statement reads:

It is with great sadness that we announce the closing of Romera. We are so very proud that we have been able to present the cuisine of Dr. Miguel Sanchez Romera to New York and we thank those who have shared our vision. Over the last six months we have been able to expose many people to the food and philosophy of Dr. Romera, and it certainly captured the attention of New Yorkers.

Dr. Romera himself has often said that New York is the backbone of many cultures and his cuisine celebrates the diversity of the New York palate. He is grateful that he had the chance to explore what New York has to offer and to touch so many people. Dr. Romera does not close the door on New York, he still believes it is the culinary capital of the world, and he will continue on his path to educate and expose diners to neuro-gastronomy and his collection of flavors.

Hampshire Hotels and Dream Hotels are committed to Dr. Romera’s vision and believe that there is a future iteration of his concepts that will find a place in coming developments.

Dr. Romera declined to be interviewed for this story, yet his basic concept of neurogastronomy examines the nutritive and sense properties of food that can be used to naturally enhance the emotional, cognitive, and rational functions of the mind. “I am a doctor who cooks, not a cook who is a doctor,” Romera has proclaimed. Diners at his eponymous restaurant, meanwhile, weren’t just paying customers, but patients who fell under his medical responsibility.

Yet dinner at Romera was more than just a meal. It was a performance. Over each table a flat, circular light fixture hung overhead with single spotlights shining down onto each diner’s place setting, clearly emphasizing that the food takes center stage. Display cases were filled with souvenirs from Romera’s travels and medicinal bric-a-brac. The monochromatic space, while comfortable, was oddly isolating.

Although many critics decried Romera’s food — Pete Wells of The New York Times famously wrote, “To eat at Romera New York is to be told repeatedly that you are in the presence of greatness, while the evidence of your senses tells you that you are in the presence of, at best, okayness” — my meal earlier this month was objectively pretty good. But was it $245 (or, rather, $300 after tip and tax) good? To that, I’d say no.
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Still, from a purely visual standpoint, I found the dishes to be very well executed, each plate popping with color. But then there were some missteps, the greatest of which was certainly Romera’s “acqua gourmands,” proprietary-flavored waters to accompany several dishes throughout the meal and whose aromas are to be smelled before eating and then meant to be drunk alongside the course. Interestingly, these tonics began as an alternative to alcohol for a Saudi prince, yet have since evolved to symbolize the relationship between eating and the brain. As Romera has explained (and anorexics have been telling themselves for years), they are intended to make your brain believe you’ve ingested food, when in reality all you’ve had is water. Mostly they just taste like the tepid water left in the pot after blanching vegetables, and the leek, green onion, celery, and organic green tea one served with the fourth course was more a disservice to the meal than an enhancement.

When Romera opened, it only offered a single menu at $245 per person. In recent months, however, it added a six-course tasting for $125 and a nine-course for $185. Romera’s opening in September coincided with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, an interesting climate for a superluxe restaurant.

Many of Romera’s dishes were made using Micri, a texture-enhancing substance he invented that’s derived in part from cassava starch. The salmon in the seventh course is what makes the glaze shine. While certainly an inventive product, once you were aware of the mouthfeel and texture of the Micri, it became noticeable throughout the meal.

My favorite plate in the 12-course tasting was the foie gras poached in duck and truffle jus with three types of lentils and assorted mushrooms. Earthy yet rich, it recalled French peasant food, but envisioned for the aristocracy.

The final savory course featured a mosaic of spices similar to the one in the fifth course. It’s the other hallmark of Romera’s cuisine, appealing again to the visual. This dish was also the greatest performance: An upright grill is filled with incense and myrrh, and a squab is briefly put in it, lending a gentle smoke to permeate the outside. The bird is then placed atop the mosaic of herbs (and cassava butters and candied dots in the same corresponding flavors), and the whole plate is dressed with a squab-and-truffle sauce.
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Again, what struck me about the shift from savory to sweet was the complete change in color palette. While most everything I ate had been imbued with color, the sweet courses were starkly black-and-white.

Both desserts showcased chocolate, unsurprising since Dr. Romera made his own in-house. He bought the beans in Mexico, then roasted them and processed the nibs into a paste from which he made the chocolate; it was exceptionally good.

The meal ended with more chocolate and bite-size macarons. Alas, this is the story of a meal that most New Yorkers weren’t able to sample. It’s unknown if Dr. Romera will forge ahead with the London and Mumbai outposts he had scheduled for the future. His notion of neurogastronomy was unique in concept, and risk-taking is ultimately what drives culinary innovation in the long run. Unfortunately for Romera, however, his Manhattan gamble didn’t pay off.

For more dining news, head to Fork in the Road, or follow us @ForkintheRoadVV, or me @ldshockey.

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