Southern Comforts

In Eat, May 2017 by Cameron WalkerLeave a Comment

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An old fashioned sparked a fresh focus for the newly renamed Relish Craft Kitchen and Bourbon Bar. About a year ago at Bida Manda downtown, owner Sharon May ordered the classic cocktail for the first time in several decades and the well-mixed, citrus-scented drink made her an instant convert.

“Bourbon cocktails had been out for a long time,” says May, former partner in a restaurant group that included Village Drafthouse and Sawmill Taproom. “But when I worked at Angus Barn in the 1980s, it’s what everybody drank. The bigwigs all came in and ordered Old Fashioneds.”

The following weekend, she ordered the same drink at Relish—and was disappointed.

“What I found was every one of my bartenders were just doing their own thing and there wasn’t consistency,” she says. “It wasn’t what I thought it should be, so we went back to the drawing board.”

May felt responsible for the discrepancy, as she realized most of her bartenders were hired from beer and wine-centric spots and didn’t have much experience building classic cocktails. She invited a bartender from private Chapel Hill club The Crunkleton to tutor her staff in mixology essentials. They also upgraded the bar menu, switched to house-made syrups, fresh cherries and larger ice cubes and, somewhere along the way, they fell in love with bourbon.

Their new love affair with the Kentucky liquor inspired a nine-person leadership and bar staff trip to Louisville for a weeklong distillery tour. They piled into a passenger van and shuttled between distilleries, making the occasional detour down long gravel drives to hole-in-the-wall bars. On the tours, they were able to touch the grain, smell the sour mash, taste the yeast and feel the temperature gradations in the barrel-aging rickhouse; in the rural bars, they met devotees of the local liquor. This experiential learning added depth to the staff’s knowledge, and now they are fluent in bourbon.

It’s quite a feat, as the menu currently lists 47 bourbons and 36 whiskeys—and General Manager Crystal Murphy is always on the hunt for more. She sometimes partners with two local bars to special order unusual bottles.

“I’m looking for anything rare or hard to find, anything that we don’t already have or that sounds interesting,” she says. “It’s hard to get new things in North Carolina. All the restaurants compete to get to the liquor store first.”

This March, around its sixth anniversary, the restaurant changed its name from Relish Café and Bar to Relish Craft Kitchen and Bourbon Bar. The name switch was small, but it highlighted the subtle changes made over the past year. May hopes the change helps communicate the restaurant’s new devotion to bourbon, as well as clarify the food philosophy, which she says is simple Southern comfort food with a fresh, fun twist.

Dishes like fried black-eyed peas, pimento cheese fritters and the Nutty burger (with bacon and house-made peanut butter) play with favorite Southern ingredients but don’t take themselves too seriously. Most menu items are drawn from recipes May or Kim Berryann, the restaurant’s director of operations and an advanced home cook, have acquired over the years. The two experiment, and kitchen manager Miguel Balderas executes their vision.

The menu is ever-evolving, so they added a supplemental Test Kitchen menu to audition new dish ideas; recipes that make the cut each season are added to the permanent menu. The only tough part, according to May, is finding items to remove. This winter’s favorites included boiled peanut hummus with red pepper jelly sauce, bourbon bacon jam and a shrimp burger inspired by Berryann’s trip to Big Oak Drive-In and Bar-B-Q in Atlantic Beach. The kitchen has also been experimenting with cauliflower mac and cheese and will soon offer the gluten-free, paleo and Atkins diet-friendly dish in the restaurant and its new catering kitchen and pick-up location.

Guests kept asking for take-and-bake versions of Relish’s popular mac and cheese varieties, so the restaurant opened The Kitchen Table this spring. A few doors down from the restaurant, to the right of the Food Lion, customers can pick up pans of the mac and cheese, as well as dinner rolls and sweet potato biscuits, family-sized salads, whole pies and pantry items like local creamed honey, pepper relish, Yah’s jams and pickled okra. Expanded offerings are planned this summer as well as a rotating meal of the day to solve the “What’s for dinner?” conundrum.

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