Memories of an expat
Relish is a culinary touchstone for those who long for Paris
Lamb sausage wrapped in feuille de brick
651 South Ave
You met her just two weeks after she finished her university year in Paris. To hear her tell it, the experience was trial by fire. First was the half-drowned feeling of language immersion, then the eventual ease of fluency, followed by an utterly intoxicating embrace. Back in Rochester, she let go of the daily patterns of street markets and long bike rides along the Seine. She stretched out her last pack of Gauloises over three weeks and never smoked another cigarette again.
You fell in love with her because you wanted to be with someone who could love anything as much as she loved France. Whenever she came across anything that reminded her of that one golden year—a macaron or a glass of wine—she would refer to the story of Proust’s petits madeleines, a simple shell-shaped butter cookie that caused a character to become overwhelmed with memories of childhood. Over the past twelve years of your marriage, you’ve been back with her to Paris for short trips trying in vain to capture the elusive glow of being twenty and so far from home.
Now it’s April, and the weather seems all wrong. Instead of chestnuts in blossom, there’s sleet. She needs cheering up, and you’ve decided to surprise her with a trip to a little South Wedge restaurant you’ve heard about called Relish. You book orchestra tickets, pick her up from work, and make it seem like dinner was an afterthought. As you step through the half- moon curtain holding back cold drafts at the entryway, there’s little about this cozy, color-coordinated space to give your secret away.
Her eyes widen at the first look at the menu and then they start to water. “I remember having this at that place near Oberkampf and République,” she says, looking back at you. “How did you find this place?”
A friend told you that Relish tries to capture the refinement of French cuisine with the casual accessibility of Paris’s neighborhood bistros. The regular menu changes constantly, and features prix fixe tastings and family-style dinners.
Tonight, you’re seated in a tight window booth, your knees touching as you look back at the neat white shelves of wine glasses and the abstract paintings. You order a bottle of Villa Bel-Air sauvignon blanc, a full-bodied reminder of why pinot grigios are the sad country cousins of white wines. The apértif is a lamb sausage wrapped in a feuille de brick, a Tunisian pastry that looks like a crêpe but with a crisp, airy texture. The coarse lamb along with the red wine mustard create a symphony of contrasts. You can see it in her eyes: she’s being taken back.
You try the halibut quenelle ($24) for the main course, a shaped mound of fish, cream, and egg that is roasted until it’s the color of a dark loaf of bread. When served, you see rock shrimp, potatoes, and the unfamiliar dome shape of what couldn’t possibly be the halibut. A forkful sets you straight with an intense, concentrated flavor. The effect reminds you why French cuisine looms so large. It focuses on enhancing the essence of the main ingredient rather than dressing it up with spices and sauces. Unexpected joyful preparations make you take pause and remember the moment.
Across the table, she is having a similar culinary epiphany with a duck leg cassoulet ($26), rich, delicate poultry in a bean and sausage stew served in a tiny red Dutch oven. A bowl of roast squash provides sweet contrast to the duck. “Ceci est incroyable,” she whispers between bites, lapsing into French.
You make it out just in time for the concert, which is lovely, but the thing she can’t stop talking about is the meal. It reminds her of others she’s had in her favorite family-run place near the university she attended as an exchange student. The owner was an acclaimed chef who gave it up to be able to call his own shots and be close to family. She remembers the kids who played quietly in the corner, the dirty windows, and the surprise amuse-bouches the owner would bring out when she lingered over her dinner. There was suddenly so much detail in her recollection, a memory of a moment in her youth.
Whether you’ve traveled overseas or not, Relish will transport you and maybe even prompt you to recollect other excellent meals in your past. The atmosphere is casual, and the presentation effortless in its artistry. In a market dominated by Italian influences, French restaurants have been quietly finding their place in Rochester, and Relish stands among the best of them.
Mark Gillespie is the marketing communications Director at SUNY Broome in Binghamton. He was formerly editor-in-chief of this magazine.