When your neighborhood restaurant services River Oaks, where Houston’s high and mighty dwell, certain frills apply. So at lunchtime, when patrons flock to stand in the semi-service line at Relish Restaurant & Bar, there’s a valet to park your car in the jam-packed lot, which borders Chuy’s on Westheimer.

The counter is cool, gray-veined marble with suave ink-blue chairs; the floor, a mosaic of those tiny hexagonal white tiles interspersed with the occasional black exclamation point. The tables are set grandly far apart in the dining room, which sports bistro touches including dark tones and smoked mirrors. It’s sunlit and airy by day, forgivingly sepia-toned at night.

There is people-watching to match, from Lululemoned young mothers in the morning to suited-up lawyers at night. Look sharp, and you might see arts patroness Louisa Sarofim hiding behind big sunglasses on a back banquette, as I did at a recent Saturday brunch.

I kinda hoped she was indulging in some of the same treats I was: immaculate Eggs Benedict crowned with a Florentine shrubbery of spinach and pea tendrils, graced with a silky Hollandaise that was precisely tart enough. “Even thin, rich people need the occasional carb,” I lied to myself as I packed away one of pastry chef Valerie Stanley’s crumbly, crunchy-roofed biscuits and nibbled on (OK, scarfed down) an icing-clad cinnamon roll.

I’ve admired Stanley’s work since I ate her desserts at Enoteca Rossa, from whence she went on to Tiny Boxwoods, where the pastry game’s always been important. Now Stanley not only produces baked goods on weekends — with Sunday brunch soon to follow Saturday’s well-established one — she superintends a full slate of desserts and an array of drop-dead cookies that sit under glass cloches by the register, ready to be grabbed to go.

Stanley runs the savory kitchen, too, during the day shift for chef/owner Dustin Teague, who dreamed up Relish with his wife, Addie. They started with a now-closed sandwich and salad to-go spot on San Felipe, then graduated to this big storefront on the southern fringe of River Oaks. (Teague graduated from Lamar High, a few blocks to the west.) So they’re on home ground, and they know how to cater to an upscale, conservative crowd that wants familiar food, with a sophisticated flourish or two, and a full bar.



“It’s like Houston’s for River Oaks,” I explained to a friend I was meeting there. Which is to say the menu’s in a solidly American vein but with nods to France (think duck-liver mousse instead of spinach and artichoke dip) and Italy (four pastas). There’s a mild Gulf Coastal sense of place via barbecue shrimp, fried okra and grilled quail. But much of the food could be served Anywhere, U.S.A.: pork chop, salmon, salads, a major-league burger, etcetera.

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays

Must-orders: Classic Burger with cheddar; duck-liver mousse (dinner only); pan-seared diver scallops with cauliflower, crispy prosciutto and Bordelaise (dinner only); Bulleit bourbon carrot cake; eggs Benedict Florentine style, “doughnut” muffin, vanilla coffee cake (all brunch only).

Four stars: superlative; can hold its own on a national stage. Three stars: excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city. Two stars: very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind. One star: a good restaurant that we recommend. No stars: restaurant cannot be recommended.

My heart doesn’t race when I survey this menu (although I did feel a mild palpitation when I spotted “crispy chicken livers” on the appetizer list). Yet the food is well executed, for the most part, and there are some delightful moments. That Florentine Benedict, for one, with nicely browned potato hash. Or a cross-section iceberg “wedge” lit up not just with cherry tomatoes and hunks of blue cheese but also by a genius mix of super-crisp bread crumbs and bacon bits.

The brisk crackle provided by this finishing touch made up for the fact that the blue cheese dressing was a little too sparingly applied. And yet. The Relish staff is so hyper-cordial — the hospitality out-Houston’s Houston’s — that the servers volunteer to bring extra of anything you please: dressing, maybe some more grilled toast for that earthy duck liver mousse, some more Creole remoulade for your tall cylinder of crab cake.

It’s a pretty good crab cake, mantled in more of those super-crunchy coarse bread crumbs. But the texture is a tangle of fluffy crabmeat shreds rather than the voluptuous slip-slide of lump. For $32 and a “Jumbo Lump” menu descriptor, I expected more.

A deftly grilled quail dish arrived looking like a miniature mountain forest, the sectioned birds all tumbled together with spears of fried okra, rolling hills of black-eyed peas, charred tomatoes and red-wine demiglace. The parts tasted good, but the dish never quite hung together for me, and I found its higgledy-piggledy pile bewildering.

Scallop dishes often strike me as sweet and dull. Not the plump ones on Relish’s dinner menu: Their snap comes from a few of those stealth-weapon bread crumbs, their salty bounce from brittle shards of dried prosciutto and their earthy contrast from a seabed of puréed cauliflower. Red-winy bordelaise sauce, an unexpected touch, brings it all to attention.

The lunch menu is largely sandwich-oriented, a nod to Relish’s gourmet-to-go roots. There’s a high-quality chicken salad laced with grapes and almonds, a southern-state must. And there’s an excellent burger that also — praise be — appears on the dinner menu. Dustin Teague’s mix of 44 Farms beef belly and inside round yields a lot of beefy flavor, and the fatty nature of the belly component yields lots of meat juices. It’s a finely detailed whole, from its romaine chiffonade to its red (!) tomato slices. They are serious about the quality of their produce here.

Wonderful skinny fries blanched and fried over a two-day process come with the burger, and they’re good enough to order à la carte with a meal.

A word about the semi-serve setup at lunch and brunch: Waiting in line to order and pay seems awkward and a little mystifying at these prices. They’ll keep your tab open if you ask, though, so you can order extra items and pay at your table if you wish. Still, the Relish staff is so adept, and such an asset, I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to staff up lunch and brunch a bit more to go full service, capitalizing on that ease of hospitality.

Drinks? I’ve encountered a well-made lavender sour based on Fords Gin shaken with egg white, and a workhorse white wine from the Mâcon that can serve as an aperitif or a flexible food wine. One evening, as I pondered the small slate of reds by the glass, I overheard the bartender offer a nearby gentleman the final glass from a bottle Chateauneuf du Pape that wasn’t on the list.

“I want that!” I piped up. The wine had been held in a Cruvinet system and turned out to be an out-of-the-box surprise that made my meal.

That’s what I like about Relish. The little surprises keep me guessing, and interested. Those killer bread crumbs. That out-of-the-blue Chateauneuf. The Bulleit bourbon caramel draped over Valerie Stanley’s luxurious carrot cake, surely one of the city’s very best with its candied walnuts and satin fluff of cream cheese icing.

Not to mention the candied lemon zest crowning vanilla ice cream on a plateful of Stanley’s hot blueberry hand pies. It made me want to candy lemon peel in my own kitchen, and there’s no bigger compliment.

Alison Cook – a two-time James Beard Award winner for restaurant criticism and an M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award recipient – has been reviewing restaurants and surveying the dining scene for the Houston Chronicle since 2002.

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