When Relish opened I wrote that owner Susan Seiller and chef Jack P. Beeson had designed a menu that effectively demolished the gap between what we want to eat and what we ought to eat. Way back then — all of seven months ago — Relish was just getting started. There was a gourmet-to-go operation; table service was lunch-only.
Now Relish is in full bloom. There’s a well-selected (and quite affordable) wine list that includes familiar favorites (d’Arenberg Hermit Crab, $26) and excellent table wines that aren’t so often seen (Charles Gonnet Chignin, quartino, $9.50/bottle, $27). The beer list includes a mix of mass-market lagers (Bud Light), local favorites (Falls City Pale Ale) and craft brews (Southern Tier).
And Relish has added a dinner menu. For me, that’s among this year’s most exciting dining developments.
Seiller, Beeson and the rest of the Relish crew (director of operations Sara Rounsavall, sous chef Allan Heintzman and a cordial, expert front-of-house staff) have created a physical and social environment that’s at once minimalist and comfortable, casual and civilized.
The space is defined by bright windows and white walls, a hanging garden of flourishing greenery, simple lines and furnishings. Enthusiastic diners can fill the room with a festive buzz, but the sound levels are never oppressive.
And the food is outstanding. Like the space, the menu is well-defined and focused. There are eight small plates — but to counterfeit a phrase, there are no small plates; there are only small chefs. And one could easily make a fine light meal out of, say, a bowl of mussels in a broth flavored with saffron, chilies, lime and more ($8/$14) or a superb square of flatbread smeared with pine green mint pesto, sprinkled with crumbled feta and lamb sausage, and touched up with a provocative pomegranate molasses ($10). A handful of potstickers (crunchy, colorful and stuffed with a lush, ground mix of shiitake mushrooms, quinoa, walnuts and more) might not make a meal, but it will make you happy.
In fact, every dish will make you happy. Chef Beeson’s touch is light but decisive. There is a Relish house style that can be summed up like this: Ingredients matter, and they ought to be allowed to speak for themselves, revealing their authentic flavors with minimal processing and minimal use of fats. It’s a style that’s restrained and exacting, but one that produces an uncommon clarity of flavor.
A salmon entree ($24) is a case in point. The salmon is excellent in its own right — rich, moist, nicely accented with ginger miso and garnished with jade green pea shoots. But nestled against it is a scoop of “Bengalese cabbage,” soft green leaves in a sublime and subtle curry sauce that leaks into a crisp, flavorful cake formed from black rice and shiitake mushrooms. There’s not a single superfluous element to be found — and the components work together not to create a main with sides, but a smartly orchestrated whole.
And this is what you find in every dish, whether it’s something as simple as an iceberg wedge ($9) topped with a horseradish deviled egg and dressed with an outstanding house-made “green goddess”-style dressing (starting with a Greek yogurt base), or a superb Cobb salad ($12) that features towering slices of the smoked prosciutto called speck, (“It’s what bacon wants to be,” said our server, and he was right), Roquefort cheese, avocados and a refreshing lemon-dijon vinaigrette.
And speaking of vinaigrettes, on one of our visits, a seasonal salad (market price), made from gem-like leaves of field greens, feta, grape tomatoes, haricots verts and Picholine olives was dressed in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette that tasted like nectar from a Greek island.
Pork chops ($26), striped bass ($25) and pan-seared duck ($22) show up on the menu, as does an excellent burger ($14) wrapped in charred naan and dressed with shallot jam, slices of avocado, Manchego and a great smoked paprika aioli.
And for a “side” dish another idea that could stand as a main attraction: truffled marble potatoes — their gleaming beige jackets ready to pop open at the touch of a fork. And if a burger isn’t on your agenda, Beeson builds panini from roasted sweet potatoes, fontina and caramelized onion ($9).
Relish isn’t a place to skip dessert. Not when the card includes choices like a maple vanilla pot de creme sprinkled with walnut brittle — a dish that my wife, Mary, described as creme brulee on steroids. A wedge of cinnamon-touched apple crisp might be the best apple pie you’ll ever taste.
And the problem with ordering a trio of cookies is that every cookie is better than the one before — though in the end a dark chocolate macaroon and a sweet and salty combination of corn flakes, graham crackers and other elements earned the most oohs and aahs.
But you might also finish — or start — your meal with two of the best drinks of the summer — a glass of glowing, house-made blueberry soda or one of fragrant mint lemonade.
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at email@example.com.
Address: 1346 River Road
Telephone: (502) 587-7007
Cuisine: Regional American cuisine with an emphasis on fresh ingredients and flavors.
Alcohol: A well-selected, affordable list of wines by the quartino or bottle; a mix of mass-market and craft beers.
Vegetarian: Several choices; ask your server.
Price range: Moderate-expensive. “Main plates” run $9-$28; exclusive of alcohol, two people could dine for as little as $30 or could spend twice that much. The lunch menu offers a number of small plates that aren’t available at night.
Reservations: A limited number of reservations are accepted, but some tables are always held for walk-ins.
Credit cards: AE, MC, V
Children’s menu: Ask your server.
Access: The restaurant appears to be fully accessible for people using wheelchairs without assistance.
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m. The gourmet takeout case is available throughout the day.
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