Venue Review: Zely and Ritz
Sarig Agasi never ceases to amaze me. Back in 1999, when he opened Butterflies in North Raleigh, the young chef practically dared me to ignore my self-imposed rule allowing a new restaurant a 30-day grace period before paying a first visit. Other restaurants may need time to iron out the wrinkles, Agasi told me in a phone conversation I remember vividly, but Butterflies was ready for me the day it opened.
I took Agasi up on his dare, and darned if he wasn't right. That first meal left no doubt that this brash newcomer was a culinary talent to be reckoned with. And every subsequent meal I enjoyed at Butterflies, until the restaurant closed in 2003, confirmed that assessment.
Now, Agasi has opened a tapas bar on Glenwood South with his wife, Nancy, and organic farmer Richard Holcomb as partners. And, wouldn't you know it, Zely & Ritz (the name is a cobbling-together of names from Sarig's and Nancy's family trees) has raised the bar for tapas bars.
I shouldn't be surprised, really. My dining experiences at Butterflies should have taught me to expect a standard-setting level of execution, a global palette of ingredients (with an emphasis on Mediterranean flavors) and an almost unerring instinct for combining those ingredients.
That's just what Agasi delivers at Zely & Ritz. The chief difference is that in his new restaurant, he serves it up in smaller portions on chic white porcelain plates in a variety of geometric shapes.
The chef has even revived a number of Butterflies' most memorable dishes, as those who mourned the passing of that restaurant will be pleased to know. A stew of impossibly tender baby octopus and Israeli couscous, and a seviche of sweet bay scallops, avocado and pink grapefruit, to name two, and Agasi's ethereal buttermilk panna cotta, which he recently paired with stewed figs, to name another. Naturally, the chef's signature starter -- hummus jazzed up with a fiery dollop of a chile sauce reminiscent of Moroccan harissa -- has also survived the transition.
Agasi has a few surprises up his sleeve, though. The presentation of a dish labeled "sweet and crispy potato gnocchi" is deceptively simple, devoid of garnish or sauce, save the translucent sheen on the caramelized crusts of dumplings the size of your thumb tip. Yet the nutty, subtly sweet complexity of flavor and the delicate interplay of textures are nothing short of revelatory. Who knew the humble gnocchi had such potential?
Subtle sweetness also adds a refreshing twist to a dish of North Carolina littleneck clams with andouille sausage and fennel. In this case, the sweetness comes in the form of the fruity notes of Riesling, which replaces the dry white wine you'd normally expect in the broth.
In a dish of plantain-crusted mahi mahi, it isn't sweetness but the bright tang of a citrus sauce that sets it apart. In venison stew, offered recently as a special, it's the earthiness of a half-dozen root vegetables and the licorice perfume of star anise. And in an inspired duck and cherry pie, fruit and fowl are unified by a port-laced gravy under a crust of latticed puff pastry.
Agasi has a knack for risotto, whose pearly-grained texture he uses as a canvas for a variety of ingredients. Bits of lobster claw and fresh tarragon make a winning culinary still life, as does the classic combination of mushrooms and Asiago cheese. And, as spring approaches, the combination of edamame and fresh herbs sounds particularly tempting.
The kitchen isn't perfect, though serious flaws are rare. Among the 14 dishes I sampled over the course of two visits, the only complete miss was an egregiously over-salted Clementine vinaigrette that made an otherwise-appealing mixed green salad inedible. Other near-misses ran along the lines of pastry crusts that weren't as crisp as they should have been and a molten chocolate cake whose center wasn't completely melted. Still, the kitchen is far more likely to delight than to disappoint.
The dining room sets a suitably vibrant and contemporary mood with bare tabletops, banquettes upholstered in faux black leather and large, colorful oil paintings by a student of the streak-and-splatter school of semi-abstract art. In keeping with the food, the dining room offers a surprise of its own: a long communal table that seats up to 18 people. The idea, borrowed from Europe, is to encourage small parties and single diners to get to know other diners. Of course, it's also great for large parties, for which it may be reserved.
The weak link at Zely & Ritz is service. The wait staff is long on friendliness but short on attentiveness. On seeing that I had barely touched the aforementioned salt-lick salad, our waitress offered an apology but nothing else. Later, she brought the wrong dessert. And throughout the evening, I had to flag her down for wine and bread refills. I'd chalk it up to one inexperienced server, but a different waiter was just as neglectful of the level of wine in our glasses on another night.
And that's a shame, because Nancy Agasi has assembled an impressive cellar of some 140 wines, a score of them available by the glass. You won't have any trouble finding something to match anything on the menu -- if you can get your waiter's attention.
The service was excellent at Butterflies, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the wait staff at Zely & Ritz become more polished with time. Not that I recommend waiting before you pay a visit. Chances are, that duck and cherry pie won't be on the spring menu.
On the other hand, once the crop from Richard Holcomb's farm starts coming in, you can bet that Sarig Agasi will have a few more surprises for us. *