So what does D'Agostino have to counter the megastore? In brief, convenience and local quality.
"You don't have to weave through a maze," D'Agostino says. "You don't have to spend thirty minutes to get two things. And we make everything daily from scratch, so we think when people taste our food there'll be no comparison."
D'Agostino conceived Relish during her time at the French Culinary Institute and designed it to resemble the friendly neighborhood markets she encountered in her travels to Europe. She returned to Houston to put the idea together, partnering with chef Dustin Teague of A Fare Extraordinaire.
It's true that finding an item on Relish's limited shelves will never be an issue. There are a few dry goods and perishables which are split between the fresh and local — Way Back When Dairy, Grateful Bread, and cheese from the Houston Dairymaids, to name a few local vendors — as well as bottled goods like Sriracha sauce and Pellegrino. Teague is also stocking A Fare Extraordinaire's addictive sweet potato chips and portioned patties of Longhorn meat (naturally leaner than both traditional beef and bison) from his family's ranch.
D'Agostino conceived Relish during her time at the Culinary Institute of America and designed it to resemble the friendly neighborhood markets she encountered in her travels to Europe.
There are fresh, house-made salsas and hummus and things to serve them with. When Relish's license for beer and wine comes through, it will be a great place to stop and buy a hostess gift or snack spread.
D'Agostino places a great deal of emphasis on the take-home meals, many of which are still being added. Teague mentioned lemon thyme roasted chicken, braised short ribs and lamb, packaged and ready for reheating in the oven or microwave. The array of market sides includes flavorful roasted cumin carrots, Caprese salad, and roasted corn with fresh dill and Cotija cheese. Offerings will change seasonally and be influenced by what's freshest and best at the markets. That's why right now an epic harvest of Texas peaches means Relish is serving a Texas peach salad, peach cobbler, even peach-flavored macarons.
Relish is still waiting on in-store seating, but its salads are worth a standing-room-only trip. The aforementioned peach salad was simply delicious, with brandied pecans, prosciutto, crumbled goat cheese, fresh peaches and an amazing peach champagne vinaigrette over fresh greens. And instead of a $14 price tag at any neighboring café, at Relish it's only $9.25.
For people who like fruit-friendly salads, there's also a watermelon tomato and feta version, or a summer strawberry salad, though my next meal might have to be the Texas Steak Salad with jicama, black bean and corn salsa, avocado, queso fresco, and spicy cilantro ranch.
The sandwiches and salads follow the same formula, classic combinations upgraded with fresh, local ingredients. There's also a dessert bar with specialties like macarons, brownies and other temptations. Pastry chef Julie Hewitt makes everything in-house, down to the marshmallows in the Rice Krispy Treats (ultra-rich and slightly spicy with a hint of cardamom) and the graham crackers for the s'mores and pie crusts.
Relish is also now the easiest way to get coffee by Houston master roaster Greenway Coffee & Tea.
Though Central Market might be the closest competition, it's actually much more sensible to compare Relish to Revival Market in the Heights. Relish doesn't have the same level of singular local focus nor the amount of fresh groceries, and there's nothing like Revival's meat program.
But with different strengths and different neighborhoods to serve, both look prepared to prove that smaller can be better.