Let me be clear up front: Relish Fine Foods is in no way related to Central Market, aside from being located a few blocks away from the grocery giant on San Felipe and Weslayan. However, the similarities between the two are striking.
Relish reminds me of nothing so much as a smaller, more streamlined, less frenetic Central Market with easier parking. The small selection of groceries and sundry items that it carries are either gourmet or locally-made: breads from Slow Dough, coffee from David Buehrer, Indian food from Nisha's Quick n Ezee, and so on and so forth. And the other part of the store -- the larger and more attractive part, one could argue -- is a ready-made foods counter where, just like at Central Market, you can grab lunch on the go and stock up for dinner at the same time.
This is the part of Relish that I'm most drawn to, as I'm not really the type to shop for gourmet groceries and do most of my local product purchasing at farmers markets. But it's also because the food that owner Addie d'Agostino and her team, including executive chef Dustin Teague and pastry chef Julie Hewitt, is making is very good.
Last Monday, I dropped by Relish for a late lunch and ended up taking several sandwiches home for dinner that night when I couldn't choose from the large menu. All but one of the salads -- the watermelon and feta -- had been cleaned out on Relish's first day in operation. Groceries weren't flying off the shelves, but the prepared food certainly was.
While I waited my turn, I scoped out the "market sides" section to the left of the lunch line. Garbanzo and farro salad with grilled zucchini and feta; roasted corn with green wisps of dill and white crumbles of cotija cheese; roasted cauliflower with fat grapes and pumpkin seeds in an orange vinaigrette. I was impressed with the obvious care that had been taken with the concept and execution of the sides. I took a small container of potato salad -- full of skin-on new potatoes, sour cream, cheese and green onions -- and coleslaw in a sweet, thin buttermilk dressing home. Neither disappointed, and I felt that with their homespun qualities, they were sides I'd eagerly pass off as my own at a party, with apologies to Relish.
The sandwiches didn't disappoint either, each on their own fresh, soft bread and filled with high-quality ingredients. There was no skimping here, either. The Niman Ranch roast beef ($8.50) was the instant favorite, with a peppery whole grain mustard and some of that sweet coleslaw to offset the burn. The Dijon shrimp salad sandwich ($10), too, was full of bright gold and red bell peppers that gave it a sweet crunch against the soft innards of a loaf of French bread. Yes, the food is a little expensive for lunch fare. But with quality ingredients and a dedicated team in the kitchen, I'm perfectly okay with that.
And those desserts... I was thrilled to find that Relish has an in-house pastry chef in a time when so many pastry chefs go unemployed and underappreciated. Julie Hewitt proves her mettle with simple creations that -- like those sides -- are thoughtful and well-executed. I quickly fell in love with her brown butter Rice Krispie treats and a pair of macarons that were fine and just barely chewy, without that cloying sweetness you find in many macarons. I'd pass those off as my own, too, except that absolutely no one would believe I'd baked them.
Right now, there is a small dining section on the right side of Relish that is small but well-lit and very open thanks to high ceilings and large plate-glass windows. D'Agostino says that they're in the process of getting barstools so that you can belly up to the broad, marble bar that wraps around two banks of windows for the lunch crowd. Lunch is currently served between 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
And in the mornings (although it only opens at 10 a.m., so don't go too early), they're serving regular and iced coffee from Buehrer's Greenway Coffee & Tea, so you can get your caffeine fix to go with a few brunch pastries. But it's dinner that I'm most excited about. Like Central Market, you can pick up a pre-made dinner to go -- think roasted chicken or braised short ribs -- and take it straight home. Relish is open until 7 p.m. during the week, making it easy to stop by after work.
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I imagine that's what most people will be doing there instead of grocery shopping, although it's nice to have the opportunity to pick up some Way Back When Milk on the way home or a loaf of Slow Dough at lunch.
See more photos of Relish and its fine foods in our slideshow.