114 Short Central Ave., Summerville
Entrée Prices: Expensive ($16-25)
Serving Lunch, Dinner, Sun. Brunch
Just as the Short Central area of shops and boutique eateries in downtown Summerville seemed to hit its stride, the economy faltered. But while most people have tightened their grip on the wallet, Tim Armstrong, the former executive chef at The Old Post House in Mt. Pleasant, has found an opportunity. Outside of the celebrated Woodlands establishment and a few cult favorites like Little Tokyo out on Highway 17A, Summerville isn't known for great food, and certainly not destination dining, but his new restaurant Relish aims to change all of that. Stomaching a boring interstate drive that seems like trekking halfway to Columbia to eat what you could have gotten on the peninsula may not seem like a great deal, but if you've tried to park anywhere near a Spoleto crowd in the past month, then the nearly empty municipal parking garage across the street with its free parking is worth the gas for a weeknight country drive.
Besides, if what you relish doesn't include hippie drum circles in a downtown park or sidewalk traffic jams of eager ghost tour walks, then the picturesque downtown Summerville square and restored streetscape of the Short Central area serves up a quaint little experience, replete with the requisite Irish bar down the street for a parting nightcap. Except for a drunken Frenchman spitting German expletives from a sidewalk table while refusing to pay his bill, our recent trip could just as well have been a scene from The Truman Show.
Relish takes advantage of the former Central Grille space, which was short-lived, but laid a foundation for Armstrong's cuisine. It's relatively unchanged, other than a few decorative touches: a new sign on the wall, and fancier bathroom towels — thick ones just like the expensive "downtown" places use. Much of the rest, including the prices, goes over pretty "downtown" as well. For the most part, we think that Relish earns every penny. It will be interesting to see if the folks who live within spitting distance will agree.
The tastes in the pine tree-laden realm of Flowertown lean toward the staid and conventional, and Armstrong delivers a solid repertoire of recognizable, easy fare, with just enough alluring pizzazz to spark interest and keep the locals coming back to see what's up. It's the kind of place that serves a daily soup ($3/$5), but leaves the dollar symbols off of the prices for trendy effect.
Big wedges of iceberg ($6) prove a popular item, throwbacks for sure, laden with a tart buttermilk blue cheese dressing and crispy bacon, but Armstrong throws a curve with the croutons — big lumps of fried green tomato, in need of a dash of salt in transit from the fryer to the plate, but otherwise a very creative way to break the mold.
Even more far afield, the housemade gnocchi ($8) are fluffy clouds, soft as pillows and draped with a spinach puree. Ordered by my favorite little dinner companion, Jack, he found them underseasoned like the lettuce wedge, but marveled at the tasty toasted pine nuts and the deep redolence of shaved pecorino on top.
The roasted beet salad ($7) fared much worse. It featured the requisite roasted beets — and they were delicious — but the stack of green beans, toasted walnuts, and veneer of goat cheese and sherry vinaigrette that coated the whole in a sickly pink coat of fluff just doesn't make for good eats. Perhaps the farmer took a leak on my corner of the bean field, or the entire amalgamation of disparate flavors all mixed up together just looked so good to the kitchen line that they declined a taste altogether, but one could detect a fleeting essence of — mothballs?
Thankfully, the bean/goat/beet salad is an odd duck in an otherwise splendid menu. The meal rang true at every other turn, even despite an overcooked strip steak, which was promptly whisked away and replaced by a slab of perfectly raw flesh. The crab cakes ($19) are as big as your head, two solid beauties with big lumps of meat peeking from beneath a golden crust and creatively twisted with a rosy pool of tomato butter for accompaniment. Barbecued local dolphin ($20), piled on corn cakes and topped with fried onions, lends an extravagant touch, with alluring flavors that can't quite be placed and a nice balance that confirms the talent of the kitchen.
Perhaps the most impressive dish, actually a bowl, consists of two fat scallops, big as billiard balls, expertly seared, crackling with caramelization alongside the area's best asparagus risotto ($21). It is an honor I formerly bestowed upon Al Di La, the funky little Avondale enclave that everyone loves, but Relish's rice basks in the golden glow of a saffron broth, soaking up the most extraordinary medley of flavors. It is a perfect combination, the risotto cooked to just the right toothsome yield, and the scallops a pure expression of the sea, with big flakes of sea salt that crunch between your teeth, the seared flesh almost raw inside. Relish is worth seeking out, paying the gas from downtown, and enduring the foreign rants of a drunk cursing into the sultry summer night.