Salad Days

It was the day before the coldest night in 20 years when we lunched at the recently opened “bakery-deli” addition at Rezaz. Anticipating the night’s subzero temperatures, we felt that post-Christmas-break malaise that begs a return to light food and brisk beginnings.

Reza Setayesh’s newest business venture delivers both. The culinary patriarch of Biltmore Village, Setayesh carved out a certain standard in 2002: fine fusion dining with his own Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences, brilliant use of fresh ingredients, custom pastries. Against storybook odds, Setayesh rebuilt his restaurant after the catastrophic Biltmore Village flood of 2004. Just short of a decade later, he’s again starting new — with less drama, perhaps, but just as much promise. “Where Jewish Deli Meets Mediterranean Street Food” is the motto printed on the accordion-folded mini to-go menus.

The friendly but low-key service at the deli’s walk-up counter, adjacent to the main restaurant, is consistent with the Rezaz standard. Ditto the arty but spare décor and appealing extra touches. (Meals are served on rustic tin trays, for example.)

A falafel pita wrap was the Monday sandwich special, but the mercury was plunging, so we ordered the hot pastrami sandwich instead. It wasn’t the three-storey-high behemoth that would be house pride elsewhere; however, the high quality made up for the comparatively low quantity. The meat was divine, with an irresistible smoky flavor.

Chef Reza Setayesh set the standard for Mediterranean Fusion cuisine.

Chef Reza Setayesh set the standard for Mediterranean Fusion cuisine.
Photo by Matt Rose
For balance, we also tried the curried cauliflower báhn mì, a light, bracing delight. Besides the main player featured in the sandwich’s title, it also contained carrot salad, “hard egg” — in other words boiled, but the absence of that ugly word was charming — jalapeno and sriracha sauce for extra spice, and lacy stalks of cilantro. (Remember that medical-journal revelation of a decade back that touted cilantro as a natural antidepressant? I was a doubter. But there’s something superlative about Rezaz cilantro that revives the argument. A couple meditative bites and I was ready to get a crazy new haircut or try wingsuiting.)

The list of daily sandwich specials amply reflects the Rezaz commitment to full-gusto fusion: Tuesday it’s a Beirut chicken shawarma; Wednesday a hot Italian meatloaf; Thursday features tentazione (prosciutto, mozzarella, shrimp, arugula, and aioli on ciabatta); Friday brings a crab-and-scallops po’boy; and Saturday finishes with ropa vieja.

But the nearer American South isn’t forgotten, either. Rezaz pays dues to the region that gave him his culinary name with an “N.C. Curried Chicken Salad” sandwich and a pimento-cheese BLT (both on the everyday menu).

Sandwiches come with a nice choice of deli salads for a side. The beans in the white-bean Tuscan salad were al dente, as they should be, although the Brussels-sprouts salad seemed a little wilted, having perhaps left its spirit behind with the holidays. The Greek salad looked so good I decided to save it for a future visit.

I took home one of the entrée salads, simply called Chopped Salad, and was a little disappointed. The protein was poached salmon, chickpeas, hard egg, and bacon, paired with cucumber, olives, and onion on a bed of lettuce and tomato and dressed with a lemony vinaigrette. All good stuff — but somehow it didn’t come together to exceed the sum of its parts. I’ll take some blame, though, since such delicate fare is never at its A-game level after being hauled home in a box.

The restaurant has long been favored for the work of its pastry chef Laura Samford: Think the Cranberry Vanilla Crème Brûlée, the Pear and Frangipane Tart, the old-world-style tiramisu.

Most famous, perhaps, is the “Reese’z” chocolate-peanut butter bombe. This thing is so intense it could make or break a relationship (Get me the Reese’z bombe for Valentine’s Day and all will be forgiven). A majority of the dining-room dessert offerings are available at the bakery-deli, too, including smaller bites: peppermint-pinwheel cookies, cranberry truffles.

I chose the rice pudding and was instantly infatuated. Served cold, it’s just right for a deli dessert. But its life in the case in no way detracts from its genius.

Creamy instead of grainy (like some rice-based confections), dainty-flavored but robust, the pudding was topped with salted nuts, golden raisins, cranberries, and other festive attractions. I can’t overstate its deep goodness: original as a snowflake, and just as ineluctable.

Rezaz Deli & Bakery

28 Hendersonville Road

Asheville

Monday through Saturday

10am-5 pm

828-277-1510

www.Rezaz.com

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