Traditional recipes for relish call for chopped sweet pickles, onions, peppers, and spices. Variations may include anything from artichokes to corn to green tomatoes.
Sharon May's recipe for Relish, the restaurant she opened in April in North Raleigh, calls for an altogether different list of ingredients. Miniature cast iron skillets in which the restaurant serves variations on the mac and cheese theme. Paper lunch sacks bearing cinnamon- and sugar-dusted doughnut holes straight from the fryer. Mason jars as vessels for everything from beverage to banana pudding.
Over a career that goes back to the Angus Barn in the '80s, May has collected ideas for her restaurant from a variety of sources, from the original Darryl's on Hillsborough Street to the Food Network. As the concept jelled, her guiding principle became simple food made from scratch and presented in a way that makes the experience fun.
At Relish, her collection of recipes and homey presentations comes together in a menu that May describes as "comfort food with a New Southern twist." By and large, the food lives up to the presentation.
Deep-fried black-eyed peas, served in a diminutive Mason jar, are quickly becoming a signature dish, and deservedly so. Fried green tomatoes, meaty and tangy under a light breading and a scattering of crumbled feta cheese, are another worthy starter. The creamy dill and orange dressing is so fetching on a salad of shrimp and mixed greens that you're inclined to overlook the puddle on the plate.
Homemade pimento cheese, served with locally baked crackers, is so addictive you'll find yourself ordering it even if you've already snacked at the sampling station by the host stand. (Relish sells house-made specialties at a little gourmet food and wine shop just inside the door.)
Can't decide between pimento cheese and fried green tomato? Get them both in The Big Cheese, where they're joined by cheddar and provolone between slices of grilled sourdough. According to May, it's the most popular of the half dozen variations.
The Parisian (brie, ham and raspberry pomegranate preserves on baguette) sounds tempting, too. So does the Wisconsin (sharp cheddar, apples and bacon on sourdough), though that one needed more cheese when I sampled it. The bread is OK by diner standards, but needs to rise above the ordinary to merit inclusion on a menu that dedicates a category to grilled cheese sandwiches.
In contrast, mac and cheese fully lives up to its cast iron skillet promise. The basic version features cavatappi pasta in a creamy blend of béchamel and sharp cheddar, served bubbling hot. Variations include Mexican (chorizo and pepper jack), Alfredo with blackened chicken, and French (ham, Swiss cheese and mushrooms).
Burgers are made with 8 ounces of beef (chicken breast may be substituted) that's fatty enough to be reasonably juicy even when grilled to the legally required medium. Offered in versions ranging from Roma (with fresh mozzarella and pesto) to Stroganoff (mushrooms, Swiss and sour cream), they're satisfying if not particularly memorable in an increasingly competitive burger market.
If it's a hearty sandwich you're after, you might consider the justifiably popular Reuben. Instead of the customary Thousand Island dressing, the Relish kitchen substitutes its house-made Mississippi "comeback sauce." You won't be the first person to pick up a bottle on your way out the door.
Under the heading of "Southern Comforts," the menu offers a handful of entrees ranging from shrimp and grits to vegetable plate. Fish tacos aren't bad, but for my money the star is the chicken fried steak. The crust is exemplary, and the black pepper cream gravy so good you'll wish you could lick the plate. The price - $10, including excellent green beans and skin-on mashed potatoes - is a bargain anyone can relish