“We believe in the power of fresh citrus, herbs and healthy fats.” That’s part of what you might call The Relish Manifesto.
As manifestos go, The Relish Manifesto is short and inspiring. And it lays out a culinary agenda that’s perfectly suited to our time. It emphasizes “real, honest, delicious foods,” sustainable and local sourcing of ingredients, a colorful menu, the moderate use of salt, sugar and fats, and “fresh and quality ingredients prepared in a simple and bright style.”
We all recognize that sometimes there’s a gap between what we want to eat and what we ought to eat. At Relish, which opened just a few weeks ago in a bright River Road space with a splendid view of Waterfront Park, that gap dissolves, thanks to some of the best cookery in the city.
Here’s a bit of background. The owner of Relish is Susan Seiller, who owned Jack Fry’s from 1986 until 2008. For many Louisvillians, Jack Fry’s was, and is, the quintessential Louisville restaurant — a brash, casual, noisy bistro with lots of character, a sense of history and a bold, saucy, gilded-age approach to food.
With Relish, Seiller is staking out new ground. Simple, clean lines define the space; a garden of fresh herbs and greenery hangs from one wall. The furnishings are simple (but so attractive and comfortable that on one visit I turned over a chair to see the label — just because I might like to have a couple myself).
Seiller’s chef is Jack P. Beeson, a Sullivan grad whose resume includes stints at 211 Clover Lane and Le Relais, as well as plenty of experience in other parts of the country. Baker (she doesn’t identify herself on the menu as “pastry chef”) Loryn Kipp whips up brilliant sweets and breads that dovetail perfectly with the menu. And Sara Rounsavall directs the operation.
Right now, that operation seems fairly modest. There is lunch service, and carryout dishes are available throughout the day. But based on the quality of the lunch operation (there’s not a menu quite like this in the city), it won’t be long before the populace rises up to demand a full-blown dinner operation.
The lunch menu is simple and alliterative: soups, salads, sandwiches, small plates and sides. It’s also replete with global influences — from Cuba to Thailand to the American South. And based on a few recent visits, it seems that Beeson is master of all his palate surveys.
All the soups are addictive. A spicy lentil chili ($3/$6) with chunks of tomato and flecks of cilantro delivers a pleasant burn; white runner beans (big, beige and creamy) join with Swiss chard and smoky bacon in a great Southern-style soup ($3/$6); and shredded chicken, mushrooms, lemongrass and coconut milk come together in a colorful, compelling rendition of tom kha, Thailand’s contribution to the canon of great world soups ($4/$7). The soups are available by the quart, too (well, as long as supplies last; I’ll probably stock up before this review hits the street).
One salad offers a perfect crab cake (spiced up with a dash of cayenne) alongside colorful mixed greens, shaved fennel and carefully sculpted sections of pink grapefruit ($12); another pits the creamy comfort of Capriole goat cheese against the robust flavor of rocket lettuce and mediates the battle of flavors with grilled slices of green apple, purple strands of pickled onions, toasted pumpkin seeds and a fine balsamic vinaigrette ($8).
Small salads featuring beets, greens, quinoa or potato (the last dressed with tarragon vinaigrette) are also available as sides ($3).
The sandwich list includes lots of creative combinations. Sweet potatoes are showing up as fries all over the place, but Beeson finds another way to use them: roasted, along with Fontina cheese as the centerpiece of a delightful sandwich that’s adorned with caramelized onions and spinach and served on cranberry-raisin bread ($9).
He dresses a burger with shallot jam, avocado, manchego cheese and a smoked paprika aioli, and serves it on naan ($10, and though the architecture of the sandwich struck me as less than optimal, the flavors were superb).
Another sandwich features house-roasted turkey breast, red pepper relish and Capriole cheese on rye toast ($9).
But the best sandwich of all riffs on the classic Cuban dish, ropa vieja. Shreds of beef brisket (cooked up with Cuban spices) and Manchego cheese are pressed into a Cuban roll — welding the meat and cheese together in a sandwich that, though quite different from either, will have sandwich lovers thinking of great Philly cheesesteaks and New Orleans po’ boys. This sandwich is a perfect combination of concept, ingredients and structural engineering ($10).
A handful of small plates completes the menu (though any of the revolving assortments in the carryout case can also be ordered during table-service hours). A savory tart ($7) was extraordinary. A beautiful pastry base was covered with luscious, dark caramelized onions and goat cheese and accompanied by lightly dressed rocket greens. And a moist, tender chunk of grilled salmon was served atop a bed of cool soba noodles dressed in sesame and lime ($8).
Kipp’s contributions show up throughout the menu (and in the carryout case), but it’s her desserts — like apple crisp pie ($7), or a sublime cookie plate — that will send you happy out the door.