It’s a freezing night, and I’m standing
on a desolate street corner in Williamsburg. Motorcycles are
parked three-deep along the block. Wedged behind the bikes is
the Relish diner. If this image was on a postcard the caption
would read "Welcome to Biker Heaven."
You’d think all those bikes would mean a greasy spoon packed with Hell’s Angels, but there are neighborhood artists eating inside. (The bikes belong to "Slick" who owns a motorcycle shop across the street.) One peek at the decor and it’s obvious this isn’t the kind of diner that slings hash. The interior retains some of the original ’50s-style fixtures with lots of chrome and Formica. Plush booths provide comfortable seating for large groups. The counter functions as a bar and red lighting imparts a warm glow to the clouds of cigarette smoke. In the back room, tables take the place of booths and it’s all very swanky in a wise guy sort of way.
Opened in February 2000, Relish quickly drew crowds of locals craving a nostalgic setting without the usual diner kitsch. Chef Joshua Cohen, formerly of Capsouto Freres in TriBeCa, serves up diner classics in portions that would sate a gallery of starving artists. Adding upscale flourishes, like tobacco rings (very thin, crisp onion rings named for their color), balsamic reduction on a salad and artichoke emulsion as the sauce for cod fish, bring some of his dishes out of the realm of comfort foods and into more adventurous territory.
Cohen’s current seasonal menu made its debut in early January. The new dishes flirt globally with everything from English fish and chips, Southwestern chipotle peppers and truffle oil. He can’t be faulted for trying too hard, but his effort can lead to one too many ingredients - chopped french fries in an otherwise perfectly prepared tuna nicoise salad for instance. That criticism aside, I found Cohen’s dishes to be expertly prepared and satisfying.
Cream of tomato soup, a kiddie classic if ever there was one, is given an adult take with the addition of souffle-like, goat cheese croutons. Cohen’s iceberg lettuce salad, popular with trendy suburban hostesses circa 1965, features a large wedge of the salad napped with a warm, tangy bleu cheese dressing, lots of chewy, smoky cubes of bacon and a topping of tobacco rings. His version could bring this classic into the modern age.
The chili-rubbed hot smoked ribs, made spicy with a lip-puckering, vinegar-tinged sauce will please barbecue purists who swear they can’t get a good rib outside of Texas. Mini fish and chips tweak the English version by substituting tiny smelts for the usual cod. Each smelt, batter-dipped and fried to a brittle turn, delivers just two bites of big flavor. Accompanying the smelts with crisp, house-made potato chips and a spicy remoulade (a tarted-up French tartar sauce that includes herbs and anchovies) give this dish an elegant twist.
Order the grilled sirloin burger with fries and be prepared to kiss the burger deluxe of your past goodbye. Huge, rare and just fatty enough to be satisfying, it’s as good as a burger gets. For $7.50, it’s the gastronomic equivalent of shopping in Loehmann’s.
A traditional nicoise salad made with canned tuna, gets an updated topping of velvety, seared tuna slices. Less successful was the grilled chipotle rubbed hanger steak with serrano ham polenta. The meat lacked the spicy, smoky taste of the chipotle pepper and the polenta didn’t taste like ham or much of anything else.
I love the way desserts are displayed in diners. Rows of layer cakes and pies, cheesecakes and eclairs, cookies the size of dinner plates. Each pastry lined up like a Can-Can girl, overblown and glitzy. Unfortunately, they rarely taste as good as they look. Relish lacks a display case, but who cares when the kitchen turns out such delicious desserts?
An ordinary-looking key lime pie, sporting the usual lurid shade of green and a simple graham cracker crust, delivers a refreshing citrus taste. Another winner, the chocolate bread pudding in Kentucky bourbon sauce, served hot from the oven, is crisp outside and creamy inside. The bourbon sauce cuts the sweetness. Other desserts stay within the comfort zone: homemade donuts, chocolate beignets (a crisp, fried pastry similar to a doughnut), crepes and even chocolate egg creams and ice cream sodas.
In the spring, you can sit outside in a garden with a view of Slick’s shop. Order the ribs and a piece of key lime pie, and relish all of it.
Relish (225 Wythe Ave. between North Third Street and Metropolitan Avenue) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $7.50 to $15.50. For reservations, call (718) 963-4546.