Nothing to Relish

Exaggerated claims, inferior ingredients, bad vibe add up to a most unpleasant experience

A restaurant's website is meant to lure customers with attractive photos and details on food and drink. It's essentially an advertisement for what diners can expect to find. Sure, there may be a little exaggerating, but usually you get what you see.

Relish Kitchen & Wine Bar boldly states that it is "Tucson's premiere (sic) destination for signature salads, hand-crafted sandwiches and unique dinner entrées." There's also a claim that the "food is made from scratch daily" and that the kitchen uses "locally-sourced products." And the wine list's focus is "on sustainable, organic and bio-dynamic wines."

Well, those claims were a bit over the top. No, they were way over the top, as though they were written by someone who was assigned to write a piece on an auto accident and told to put a positive spin on it.

As we walked in at lunchtime we were met, not exactly greeted, by a woman I assumed to be the hostess/manager. When we asked if we ordered at the counter, she said, "Yes." She then followed us to the counter, where she proceeded to ignore us while hovering over the young cashier.

The décor is all clean lines and earth tones. But with several refrigerator cases—one of them empty—sitting in the dining area, the upscale vibe is lost.

The menu describes the sandwiches as "Gourmet" and "Signature." We didn't find anything gourmet about them. Don't even get me started on "Signature."

The wine list consists of lower-end wines, the kind you can find on a grocery store shelf (not the top shelf). As for the wines being "organic, sustainable and bio-dynamic," I made a point of researching the wineries. Yes, these wines come from conscientious growers and vintners. But sustainability is a common practice these days, especially in producing wine. These are not wine bar wines in the least.

From the "Gourmet Deli Sandwiches" list we ordered the Turkey and Avocado ($7) and from the "Signature" list we ordered the Asian Salmon Burger ($9). You get a choice of kettle chips or slaw with the sandwiches. We opted for the slaw when we found out the chips are not made in-house but instead come in a "big box."

Our sandwiches were disappointing. The turkey/avocado consisted of inexpensive meat, what appeared to be processed cheese, very little avocado and—unforgivably—very dry, very ordinary bread. The slaw was merely shredded cabbage in a light dressing.

The salmon burger had an almost slimy texture and a strange flavor. Then there was the slaw on top. Unevenly chopped chunks of cucumber, onion and I'm not sure what else were tossed with a slick, dark dressing (no doubt with a lot of hoisin sauce), which was as unappetizing in looks as it was in flavor. A few more minutes on the flat top might have added a much-needed char to the fish.

The hostess came by once to refill our coffee cups but that was it. No one asked if we needed anything or if we were enjoying our meal. Once we ordered, we were left alone.

We ended up leaving half of our food on the table and had lunch elsewhere.

Dinner was only marginally better. The entrées were in no way "unique" and there seemed to be no theme, with everything from jambalaya pasta ($16; $8 for a half-portion) to fish tacos ($14; $7) offered. The most "unique" thing we found was the fried cheese bread ($5) appetizer.

There was table service this time. Our server was pleasant and prompt, an improvement over lunch. And the chef came around to the tables to chat.

But the plates were all Melamine—that's plastic to those of you who didn't live through the '60s. Plastic plates are not upscale by any means. Plus they were slippery, which could result in a dining disaster.

We went with two of our favorite dishes: crab cakes ($21; $11) and pasta Bolognese ($16; $8). We also ordered a starter of tomato and fresh bruschetta ($5).

The bruschetta was unremarkable. Again, the bread was subpar. When bread is one of the main ingredients in a dish it should be great bread. Tucson has some nice sources for quality bread. I don't understand using this level of product. The tomato and cheese were OK at best and the presentation was lacking.

The crab cakes were good-sized, but there was no zing. Accompanied by a decent black bean and corn relish, they begged for a lemon or an aioli of some sort.

The Bolognese needed more meat, more sauce, more seasoning. I love a good Bolognese and this didn't come close to plates I've had elsewhere.

Finally, we had dessert, a highly praised peach cobbler with "homemade vanilla gelato" ($6.50). Not to sound like a broken record, but we were disappointed again. The cobbler was too hot in some spots, too cold in others. There was cake at the bottom and a scattering of peaches with a crumb topping and ice cream, not gelato.

I'm not sure what the problem is at Relish Kitchen & Wine Bar. I think the kitchen means well but there's a lack of focus. Or maybe there is a disconnect between the other owners and the chef (the chef is a part-owner.) Or maybe it's a matter of budget constraints. I honestly don't know.

The area around Swan and Camp Lowell roads has seen several good restaurants exit in recent times, so Relish Kitchen & Wine Bar has an opportunity to fill a niche. With a lot of hard work and careful planning, maybe it could become a "premiere destination." I'm just not sure it has what it takes to get there.