On Creme Brulee and Caesar Salad

July 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

For the 4th of July, we ventured down to Asheville, NC. In addition to some incredible company (my mom and sister joined us from Georgia), the food we enjoyed put our trip over the top. Having grown up with a family cabin in Balsam, NC as our prime vacation destination, it is always nostalgic to return.

In addition to a few new finds (like the incredible bagels at City Bakery!), revisiting an old favorite inspired me to give it some attention here on the blog. Rezaz should not only be a must on any visit to Asheville, but it also brings up fond memories and challenges my tenets in food. Situated in Biltmore Village, Rezaz has been a go to for my family for several years. In fact, we followed the Chef/Owner Reza Setayesh from his previous post at a golf club tucked somewhere in the mountains not far from Cold Mountain, where the well-known novel was set.

Two of the signature dishes that never leave the menu come straight from his time at that country club and ironically both defy some of my food principles. You see, before my senior year in high school I worked in the kitchen of The Southside Grill in Chattanooga, TN. I was eager to learn and lucky enough to find a restaurant that embraced the locavore movement years before it had a name. We grew herbs in our garden, had daily produce deliveries and sourced meat and fish from local purveyors. The food was remarkable, paricularly for Chattanooga at that time (2000) and I learned more about cooking and baking in three months than I could have ever imagined.

I worked both garde manger, preparing and plating all of the cold appetizers and salads, and as an assistant to the pastry chef. As such, two of the menu items I was responsible for were the caesar salad and creme brulee. I still attest that both of these classics were some of the best I’ve had, but gradually the sheer size of the batches we prepared put me off of them both completely. Emulsifying two gallons of olive oil into a vat of dressing or separating 90 egg yolks will do that to anyone, I suppose. If nothing else I came to appreciate the sporadic occurrence of a double yolk! Torching the sugar on the creme brulee, however, never got old.

Following my summer at Southside, I vowed that creme brulee and caesar salad were dead to me, and for the last 10+ years, I’ve not waivered much in that stance. Mr. Setayesh versions have been the exception. In what is a seemingly simple twist, Setayesh quarters and grills heads of romaine on a wood burning grill for what I imagine is no more than a minute or two as the lettuce barely wilts and remains cool and crisp. This nuance in flavor, in addition to a well executed dressing that is a bit thinner than the classic, makes the salad one I hold all others to in comparison.

The addition to lavender to the creme brulee is another small innovation that elevates the classic to something unique, setting it apart from the ubiqutious versions on nearly every dessert menu. Of course, here again, execution is also key. The proper custard consistency, a shallow dish, and a thick well bruleed crust strike a near perfect balance.

The rest of the Rezaz menu spans several cuisines. The restaurant describes itself as mediterranian but only subtle hints of these are sprinkled throughout the menu. Southern, Italian and Spanish influences also dot the dishes which maintain one consistent feature – they are all outstanding. As my sister remarked, everything on the menu sounds good and is then even better and different (in a good way) than you imagined. To me, this is the sign of a great chef.

On our visit, we had an incredible friend shrimp and calamari salad of sorts that tossed the crisp seafood with green onions, a spicy/sweet asian sauce, shredded lettuce, sesame seeds and green onion. The combination was a case of the whole being more that the sum of the parts. It worked perfectly. Another small plate,a soft, pillowy potato gnocchi was paired with tomato, spring peas, fresh paremsan and a balsamic reduction, also exceeded our already high expectations based on the description alone.

In addition to the food, one of the most remarkable things about Rezaz is the value, the pricing of menu items and the well-selected wine list makes you feel (especially when you have been conditioned with New York prices) that you are getting away with something. I would like to think Rezaz has found the optimal price that keeps customers filling the tables but does not make them sacrifice when it comes to quality ingredients. They love and are proud of what they do and it shows on the faces of each staff member. While I believe they could get away with charging more, I love that fact that they embrace the neighborhood restaurant vibe and make it a place one does not have to reserve only for special occasions. If not for the some odd 600 miles standing between us, I would certainly be a regular.

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