(To note, Karen staged at Relæ, so take whatever we have to say with a grain of salt)
Relæ is everything I want in a restaurant. It walks the line between indie rock and too cool; it’s a space where it doesn’t seem like a designer splashed his ego (and the restauranteurs’ money) all around it, and with the staff, you have a hard time deciphering who exactly is the head chef between all the cooks or the front of the house manager from one of the two servers is (Although both Christian and Kim have had their picture taken so much, I’m sure everyone knows by now.) But to me, that’s a good thing. The food is uncluttered, exact, and most of all, delicious. In all, our December meal at Relæ was our best meal in 2010 following 2009 when Commis dominated (just so you know where we’re coming from.)
Pretension is a funny thing. It’s one of those things that can change from view to view, differing angles, and different expectations and perceptions. I’m sure with just the press, the attention, and with Christian and Kim’s high-end restaurant backgrounds, many see Relæ as a place of pretension even without setting foot into it. To people who see food first as a price tag before enjoyment, Relæ is probably fine dining. But to me, it’s anything but. It’s an experience and cuisine that’s cut to the very bone of what the chef really wants to put out. It has ideals in service and food that are very finite, where energy is put into facets of the dining puzzle that the staff really cares about. And the other parts of the dining puzzle where they can spend less time on, they find thoughtful ways to make functional. Though maybe some people who are looking for “noma lite” will be disappointed (not to state the obvious, but this isn’t noma (in a good way)) you can see Relæ’s upbringing in their attention to detail in the food and service. It’s just less obvious to those who aren’t looking or haven’t had those types of details etched into their DNA. But these things add up, and though most of the walls are stark white and the comfort level is ratcheted up (Johnny Cash all-day, every day? Um, yes.), the details that Relae most pays attention to make for a ridiculously enjoyable, wholesome dining experience.
What I loved most about Relæ is that their time and energy was put into the things that I personally value most in a restaurant: comfort, quality of ingredients, and technique. There are no elaborate schemes to create a whirlwind experience where flourishes really crowd out the food, but rather the restaurant is a very direct translation of the owners’ personalities. Eating here is like sitting down and having a conversation with the Chef Christian Puglisi himself. The food itself seems simple enough to by eye, each plate doesn’t have very many components to them, but you notice when you eat the food that there’s always a very clear, delicious, yet complex flavor. Garnishes that don’t add a real flavor to the dish (one of those big foraging-y complexes that I want to appreciate more than I actually do) don’t ever make it to the plate.
May be the most telling ideal of this in our meal were the Nantes carrots on the veal and carrot dish that I had. That’s all that dish really was, braised veal and roasted carrots. Yet, the carrots weren’t peeled; something thought of as lazy to guests who only eat by eyesight. Gently scrubbed and trimmed at the tops to maintain their nutrients (along with those nutrients’ flavor), they were roasted heavily to get that amazing sticky, carroty goodness that one can only get with good technique and lots of patience. Paired with simply braised veal and showered with an powdered Icelandic seaweed called sol, it was just one of those dishes that ruins all other “simply braised” dishes for you for the rest of your life– one where the accompaniments met the match of the proteins and they all came together in a delicious, savory balance.
Another dish, one of my favorites of all last year, a porridge of barley, cauliflower, smoked almonds and pickled trumpet mushrooms was an expert balancing act where many things can go wrong– but here they don’t. It could be because of good cooks or good ingredients but even a simple dish with *literally* four ingredients works so well together here because the dish is measured. Again, literally. The amount of smoked almond for the dish is measured out, the amount of acid for the dish in the pickled mushroom are calculated exactly to be precisely what the chef wants every time. It’s these little, obsessive qualities in the food that make it so good.
So what is the trade-off? Some could nail Relæ for maybe being too relaxed. You pour your own water, you set your own table with little drawers of flatware underneath the tables, and the napkins are paper. But again, hiring another runner would cost the restaurant, and then you more money. You pay for their bottles of purified water (which awesomely enough, they also use for the stocks here), and also their opening snack and ending mignardises if you so choose. But that’s all that you really can choose. There’s that, and the choice between the omnivore or vegetarian menu. That’s it. So maybe some people may stick it to them for being *too* unlike a high-end restaurant.
Me? I love that relaxed pace and setting where the food is good and no one is really fretting over me. I love watching the staff really pay attention to the food and really pay attention to their guests. Every dollar you spend there you can see and taste, the whole restaurant is straightforward. Here, there is no bullshit in an era where bullshit seems to be beloved by everyone else. They don’t care if your hair is gelled or your shirt is ironed, and you won’t care if your garnish isn’t tweezed on to make the plate look like dancing sugar plum fairies in a candy cane forest. And for that and much more, I loved my meal at Relæ.