In Rockland County, Relish thrives on the sine qua non
of a truly classical cuisine
Before Atkins and South Beach, we had the Mediterranean diet (before the idea of dieting at all, in fact, since its roots extend to classical antiquity). The moniker became popular in the 1990s, largely thanks to the efforts of Nancy Harmon Jenkins of The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and even the American Heart Association, which jumped on the bandwagon, although with some reservation. The AHA felt too many of the diet’s calories derived from fat, but praised its reliance on high consumption of fruits, vegetables, and cereal grains; its devotion to olive oil; and its paucity of red meat.
What this diet has over many modern pretenders is that it tastes fresh and delicious, is generally simple to prepare, and provides gustatory balance instead of foisting on you monotonous quantities of any one foodstuff. There’s a reason Rome wasn’t built in a day: the Romans were busy eating their very good, very healthy food! It’s one of my favorite cuisines. At Relish in Rockland County — hail Caesar! — I have a kindred spirit. Don’t be fooled by his name; chef Daniel Magill is an acolyte of this sun-drenched fare, even if he prefers chef’s whites to a toga.
Magill calls his food “progressive new American,” but his Mediterranean leanings are unmistakable. As soon as we ordered, he sent out that evening’s amuse bouche: his scrumptious variation on spanikopita, phyllo pastry triangles filled with goat cheese (instead of feta), Swiss chard (instead of spinach), and toasted pine nuts. When the owner, Michael Gross, came over to bus our table, I only half joked, “We’re changing our order to 20 more of these and salads all around.” Magill is also fond of Mediterranean staple ingredients like olives, eggplant, tomatoes, and citrus.
The restaurant, designed by the eco-conscious local architect Khader Humied (whose company is called Metaform Studio), is casual and warm, with pendant lamps made of recycled vegetable-crate wood and a liberal use of plywood created using non-toxic glues. School desk chairs, probably from the ’60s or ’70s, provide seating. Tricked out in bright colors like orange, yellow, and turquoise, they mirror the bright attitude of the servers, who are friendly and efficient.
One of our companions started with a basic, yet tasty, salad of organic mixed greens lightly dressed with Acacia honey vinaigrette and dotted with toasted walnuts, Roquefort cheese, and shavings of Italian fennel ($8). Her husband’s appetizer, jumbo lump crabmeat and avocado salad ($15), was excellent, its miso-ginger-grapefruit dressing adding a fillip of acid pucker without overpowering the delicate white meat. Fresh hearts of palm, grapefruit slices, and micro arugula garnish supplied crunch and more perkiness.
Oysters are usually on the menu, varieties changing according to availability. The night we dined at Relish, Magill was serving three Pacific huma humas (also called hamma hammas) and three Rhode Island Watch Hills per plate ($15). They came bathed in different mignonette sauces — the huma humas flecked with finely diced pineapple and aromatic whole red peppercorns, the East Coast specimens with apple, vodka, and coarse grindings of black peppercorn. Each brought something sweet to the briny bivalves, and the bite of their respective peppercorns enhanced the whole experience by luring all the flavors up into the nose. Divine! The only disappointment was the crispy seared veal sweetbreads appetizer ($15). The thicker slices maintained their melt-in-your-mouth buttery interiors, but the thinner ones lost that quality amid the floured, sautÃ©ed crust and the overly complicated accompaniments (violet mustard spaetzle, wilted frisee, pignoli nuts, and a red-wine reduction).
As you might imagine, seafood is prominent on the menu. Since three out of four of us dove headlong into these options, we chose a white wine, a 2004 Fouassier “Clos Paradis” Sancerre ($36), from the list of reasonably priced selections ($22-$52). It turned out to be thicker and more syrupy than most, which was fine since its more robust character stood up to the one meat-eater’s lamb shank. The shank ($27) came braised in red wine and served with celeriac purÃ©e, fiddlehead ferns, pancetta, and cardamom lamb jus. Yes, the cardamom strayed a little further east than most dishes, but its effects were admirably gentle and the lamb, otherwise prepared according to classic French precepts, was so tender it practically disintegrated at the touch of a fork.
My bigeye tuna ($28) was poached in olive oil from Greece (a fragrant elixir also served with bread before your meal) and came accompanied with farro (a staple of the ancient Roman diet that we call spelt here ), eggplant caponata, caper-currant compote, and an unusual and completely pleasing invention: candied olives, which Magill tossed in sugar and dried in a slow oven. The mild tuna, rare and moist, became a perfect foil for a riot of flavors and textures.
The shrimp special ($27) was even better. Dusted with fennel pollen and basted in spicy grilling oil, its chili pepperâ€“induced heat blended startlingly with a host of other flavors: toasted fregola (a Sardinian semolina pasta imported in pre-Christian times from Africa, home of its close cousin, Israeli couscous), fava beans, chorizo, the gorgeous scent of preserved Meyer lemon, and two vinaigrettes: one laced with black olive, another with more Meyer lemon.
Diver sea scallops ($27), though dusted in Chinese five spice and served with a caramel-soy reduction, kept one foot firmly planted in southern Europe. The dish was served with a delicious Carnaroli risotto, rock shrimp, snow pea sprouts, and roasted beets. The reduction made it a bit salty, but naturally so rather than tasting like the chef had been too enthusiastic with the shaker.
Every dessert ($7) was spectacular. Apple fritters (really sweet-tart beignets) were fluffy and served with caramel sauce and a clean-tasting lychee sorbet; a “medium rare” chocolate cake was warm and molten inside and served with a red wine-black peppercorn sauce and dulce de leche ice cream; and the coconut panna cotta — the classic Italian custard — came refreshingly accompanied by passion fruit coulis and preserved kumquats.
Among the democratic selections at Relish , there’s something for everyone. Et tu Brute!