Paul Shire, who landed on the Providence restaurant scene more than 20 years ago, is in the kitchen again – this time at The ROI, a new supper club beneath the sidewalk in the space where the old Century Lounge used to reside. Shire has many fans who fell in love with his food first at the original DownCity Diner and then at Oak on Hope Street. Shire ended up selling his interest in both those restaurants to take a break and do some traveling. Now, with his batteries fully recharged, he’s cooking again, and the Providence restaurant scene is all the better for it.
I’m slowly working my way through the menu at The ROI, having had lunch and dinner there on several occasions. For appetizers, the best of the bunch is the Polenta Fries ($8.95). Traditional cornmeal polenta is sliced into thick planks, much like steak fries, then fried in olive oil. A stack of these fries is served with a spicy marinara sauce and a generous sprinkle of crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Somewhat delicate, the larger fries tend to break into pieces. When “the girls” got together for a recent lunch, we politely ate every crumb.
I liked the Pecan-Crusted Chicken Tenders ($9.95), especially when dipped into the tangy blackberry glaze. The Fire Grilled Large Shrimp ($12.95) were drizzled with pesto, and I would have liked a little more for dipping. Every bite had that certain crunch you want in properly cooked shrimp. The Jamaican Jerk Chicken Wings ($8.95) were plump and meaty. The accompanying mango glaze helped to douse the fire on my lips. A friend said that the Pulled Pork & Jack Cheese Quesadilla ($10.95) was greasy, but that was not my experience. The pork is slow cooked, shredded, and mixed with a smoky barbecue sauce. With a bit of the house salsa and some sour cream, it was a Cinco de Mayo party in my mouth.
Another appetizer possibility, if you care to share, is the Margherita Pizza ($12.95). This pie is so good, however, you’ll want the whole thing for yourself. The hand-stretched, fire-grilled pizza shell is topped with simple, classic Italian ingredients: fresh plum tomatoes, shredded fresh mozzarella, and a chiffonade of fresh basil (red, white and green – the colors of the Italian flag). Fresh is the operative word here.
One day at lunch, I thoroughly enjoyed the Seafood Chowder ($4.95) with its unmistakable ocean-fresh taste in every mouthful and the hint of fresh dill. I was told it’s made from scratch with local clams. On the salad side of things, The ROI Salad ($8.95) is a winner with its sweet, tangy and tart com- ponents – a mix of greens with dried cranberries, goat cheese, candied pecans and cider vinaigrette.
That pulled pork (in the quesadilla) makes an encore appearance in the Pulled Pork Sandwich ($10.95), served on ciabatta bread with a side of fries. The French fries are fine, but I recommend upgrading to the Sweet Potato Fries for something special. The fries are all served in cute little metal baskets, miniature versions of what the fries are cooked inside back in the kitchen.
The queen of the sandwiches is the Open Faced Meatloaf ($10.95), which would make the Grilled Filet Sandwich ($12.95) the king. The meatloaf is one of Chef Shire’s signature dishes, dating back to his years at the much-missed DownCity Diner. Shire makes one heck of a meatloaf using all-natural ground beef, rolled oats and his secret seasonings. For the sandwich version, a thick slice of the meatloaf is pan-fried and served open face on house-made focaccia. It is drizzled with gravy spiked with a bit of Jack Daniel’s Kentucky bourbon, then crowned with an abundance of delicate fried onion crisps. As an entrée, two slices of the meatloaf are served along with creamy mashed potatoes and more of that gravy with a kick ($15.95).
Of the two burgers ($9.95 to $10.95) I’ve tried, one was perfectly okay and the other was magnificent. The former was topped with a generous slice of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and red onions (there’s that Italian flag again). The latter was the Greek Burger, which will always tempt me. This is one of those dishes that I have added to my list of “the best things I ever ate.” The half-pound of ground beef was cooked to a medium state of doneness, as I requested, then topped with an almost ridiculous amount of feta cheese and kalamata olives. I loved every bite. All the burgers are served on Kaiser rolls with fries and a pickle spear.
The most expensive dish on the menu is the Fire-Grilled Choice Filet ($23.99), a beautiful cut of tender, flavorful meat with an herb crust and a Chianti demi glaze. Mashed potatoes complete the plate. Another wonderful main course is the Herbes de Provence Salmon Filet ($18.95), which makes healthy eating so easy. The boneless salmon is encrust- ed with seven herbs and served atop a creamy mushroom risotto with a side of zesty citrus butter.
The dessert menu is pretty straightforward – Apple Crisp, Tiramisu, Chocolate Cake and New York Cheesecake ($5.95 each). The most creative offering is the Cinnamon Maple Bread Pudding, a warm and sweet concoction that blends coffee cake and custard resulting in something like French toast with a walnut topping.
Clearly the food at The ROI is very good – as hip and cool as the décor of this subterranean restaurant. Dark and sexy, The ROI has a long, inviting bar where creative cocktails are a specialty. The tables and chairs, and a few booths, are the color of dark chocolate. Amber sconces and bright red pendant lighting brighten the intimate dining room. An interesting city skyline decorates one wall, while other walls have iridescent panels.
So what is the significance of the name? Shire explains that “ROI” has multiple meanings beginning with “return on investment.” It also stands for the name of Shire’s financial partner, Paul Roidoulis. And it is the French word for “king.” Shire says everyone will be treated like royalty at his new restaurant. Indeed.