Ambiance: Sleekly — but warmly — urban
Service: Attentive, knowledgeable, professional
Rezaz is one of those places that invariably pops into my head when a visitor to Asheville asks me where to go to dinner. The restaurant is exotic yet approachable, inexpensive for the quality of the food, and generally performs beautifully as a whole, so I seldom find cause for complaint.
Rezaz’ interior is sleekly urban yet intimately warm. Though the decor is quite contemporary, the wood floors, bar and furniture soften the look, as does the restaurant’s lighting approach. Though the ceiling is quite high, glass pendulum lights are suspended from curvilinear metal tracks so that they hover over the center of some of the more exposed tables, just above head level.
The intensity of the light is in no way intrusive, but it’s bright enough to be comfortable (and allow you to read the menu), creating a little halo around each particular group. This gives a feeling of intimate space, even when you could easily poke the generously proportioned man seated at the next table with your fork, should you so desire. It is partially the restaurant’s lighting that saves customers from feeling crowded, even when they must share the pillowed bench that lines one of the walls with the posteriors of about a dozen other diners.
On my most recent visit to Rezaz, my Picky Companion and I were seated at one of the aforementioned more exposed tables, and I quickly felt slightly uncomfortable, as the people navigating from one end of the restaurant to the other were passing so close to my back that I could feel a breeze (hey, I get a little irritable before the drinks are served). Our waiter graciously accommodated our request to move to a more private table, which was a relief. As wary as I am of being a pain in the ass when I go out to eat, I fear that sometimes I can be just that. My companion usually reassures me by reminding me that this is, after all, the “service” industry, but I usually ask him to make the requests anyway, and he doesn’t seem to mind.
At any rate, graciousness seems to be par for the course at Rezaz; I have never, ever felt ill at ease there. The wait staff is highly accommodating, on top of being very knowledgeable about the food and the wine list. Every time there has been an issue at my table, the situation has been quietly and efficiently remedied both by the front and the back of the house. I had one particular experience with a pork tenderloin that was first overcooked, then replaced (a bit too quickly) with one that was so rare that it was cold inside. Not only was the entree subsequently removed from the bill, but I was also offered free dessert – a move that is partially responsible for my repeat-customer status.
The food itself is generally solid. As I’ve mentioned, there is the occasional mishap – an overcooked piece of meat, a duck breast with a pomegranate sauce that was unreasonably strong. But what restaurant doesn’t have an off night?
However, I’ve had some stellar dishes, such as the grilled octopus appetizer – a substantial tentacle, served with a delicious slaw, which was expertly charred on the outside, surprisingly tender and absolutely delicious. Simple as it is, the wood-grilled Caesar salad is great, too. The smokiness of the grilled romaine hearts and bruschetta add a lovely dimension to a familiar classic. The bread was also fantastic. Made in-house and served with a very fruity olive oil, I almost always make the mistake of eating too much of it and partially spoiling my appetite.
(I’ve heard the paella is excellent – reportedly some of the best in town. But for reasons of my own, I’m most likely off of Paella forever, so I’ll have to take everyone’s word for it.)
On this particular visit, Rezaz struck gold again with a fantastic tuna escabeche (meaning “pickled” in Spanish) that was served with an herb frittata, a smattering of fresh herbs and an intensely flavored, citrusy caper vinaigrette. The tuna was impressive for its tenderness – it seemed to have been withdrawn from the marinade before it could be totally penetrated by the acids. The frittata was ice cold, which did seem an odd choice (room temperature might have been better), but the dish as a whole was still great.
Another appetizer, the Trio Frico, did not fare as well. Though each of the components was tasty, there was so much going on in the dish that it was nearly confusing. The duck confit was overwhelmed by most of the flavors on the plate, including the Montasio wafers on which they rested. The portabella slices were short enough on flavor that they got lost as well, especially with the roasted garlic and tomatoes stealing the show. And the fresh ginger that surfaced from parts unknown (perhaps it was in the carrot salad?) was a bit overwhelming. Taken as somewhat of an antipasto, the plate was interesting and satisfying enough, but for the most part, a bit jumbled.
For our entrees, we ordered both of the specials. The restaurant runs a rotating list of daily specials – for example, every Wednesday is Bresato al Chianti night – as well as specials more of the “chef’s whim” variety. On Mondays, the kitchen serves up house-made goat-cheese ravioli in a spicy lamb ragout with sautéd spinach and shallots, and the result is excellent. The dish is a highly satisfying stew, rich with various aromatics and possessing a great depth of flavor. It is basically exquisite comfort food, like something a culinarily gifted Italian grandma would slave over all day. The ravioli, rich with goat cheese, brings a different twist to the dish, which I hope is still on the menu in the fall.
The other main course was a dish of wahoo served with a crab/cabbage slaw, a fresh pea risotto and a lime aioli. This dish was quite good as well; the fish was fresh, the slaw was lightly seasoned to allow the flavor of the crab to shine through, and the risotto was perfectly cooked and seasoned lightly so as to allow the flavor of the peas to come through. The only problem was that the flavors tended to run into each other and become a bit muddled. The aioli helped to add the extra kick that the dish needed, saving it from being too one-dimensional.
The dessert was the real highlight of my evening. I believe that there is no finer flavor combination on the face of the planet than raspberries with sumptuous chocolate, and Rezaz’ pastry chef won my heart by featuring two chocolate and raspberry desserts: one a crème brûlé and gelato combo, the other chocolate ganache torte with layers of flourless chocolate cake and raspberry mousse with a scoop of raspberry sorbet. Quite possibly, the latter combination was the most delicious thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. Served with a Chianti dessert wine (the first time I’ve tried such a thing), the dish was a perfect end to our evening.
I left fully satisfied and convinced the meal worth every penny. I will continue, as I have since my first (well, maybe second) Rezaz experience, to recommend this restaurant to Asheville newcomers.