Review of The ROI by Bill Rodriguez

Anyone who liked DownCity Diner when Paul Shire opened it in 1990 or Oak when the chef was in charge there will love his newest restaurant, the ROI. It’s in the low-key Jewelry District — oops, we’re supposed to think of it as the Knowledge District these days — and it fits well in that laidback neighborhood.

Shire’s culinary heritage ranges from regal — his great-grandfather was chef to the king of Egypt — to regal-er — his aunt Lydia Shire is Boston restaurant royalty (Biba, Locke-Ober, Scampo). Until recently he headed the kitchen at Andreas in Providence.

The ROI looks cozy enough to trigger a yen for comfort food. The basement space is inviting, maintaining the low-light intimacy of the former occupant, the Century Lounge, the decor warm ambers and browns. The restaurant is billing itself as a “Food & Music” supper club, so there’s a small stage, a nightclub-quality sound system, and frequently scheduled performances.

Since roi means king in French, Shire hasn’t passed up the opportunity to joke around that the food and service here is fit for such, and also that he’s aware it also stands for “return on investment.” (Speaking of the latter, this ROI is pronounced “roy,” as in Paul Roidoulis, Shire’s financial backer in this venture.)

The food here is good, but any crown-chapeaued tourists venturing down the stairs would be doing so to learn how we ordinary folk live. All half-dozen burgers and half of the dozen sandwiches offered at lunch are on the dinner menu, indicating that the expected clientele is not your quail and truffle crowd. And the prices are kept down — the top splurge is the $24 filet mignon.

If you’re thinking of checking out the place at lunchtime, there are a couple of representative entrées that also are on the dinner menu: Maryland crab cakes ($14.95) and Shire’s signature all-beef meatloaf ($12.95) with Jack Daniel’s gravy, each three bucks more in the evening. Available larger as an entrée at lunch ($12.95) as well as an appetizer at dinner ($10.95), there’s also a roasted garlic and chives hummus platter.

We were there for dinner, and that appetizer list presented several temptations to me: a pulled pork and Monterey Jack quesadilla ($10.95); pecan-crusted chicken tenders ($9.95) with a blackberry glaze; and Gorgonzola-topped polenta fries ($8.95), sliced thick, fried in olive oil, with marinara sauce for dipping. But we wanted to see what they did with pizza, so we tried one of those. For us carnivores, there’s either grilled chicken or sausage — not offering a choice of oh-so popular pepperoni counts as a touching health measure.

The veggie version ($12.95) had such an appealing collection of ingredients that I was glad to go with that. Not only spinach but organic spinach, not only tomatoes but fine-ripened tomatoes, caramelized onions, mushrooms, olives, and four cheeses over tomato sauce. It was wonderful, the toppings not only varied but also bountiful. Who needs nitrates and spicy animal parts?

There are only seven main dishes on the dinner menu, but our server proposed three or four additional options, including cod and mussels over spinach and fish and chips. We limited ourselves to the menu, so that you, dear reader, would be able to partake and not just wistfully crave.

And crave you should, since both our dishes were excellent. My Southwestern-spiced pork chops ($15.95) were delicious, thin like cutlets but flavorful. Speaking of flavor, their bed of rice and black beans was rich with chicken broth, an addition I intend to follow at home. Johnnie’s “all-natural” chicken cutlet ($15.95) was moist and tangy in its lemon and wine sauce, accompanied by plenty of capers, intense calamata olives, artichoke hearts, and roasted peppers. Wonderful.

Sautéed-Chicken-Cutlet

Wonderful The ROI's Sautéed-Chicken-Cutlet

As for desserts ($5.95), they are not made there — Wayland Bakery provides them — and we did not pick a winner. The fruit in the bananas foster bread pudding was unaccountably unappetizing, hard instead of sauteed to softness; we had to pick them out and push them aside. Maybe you’ll have a better time with the apple pie crisp, our server’s favorite.