It's not often you get Nina Simone, Lena Horne and Ma Rainey together in the same room. Yet there they were, right in front of me — on the cocktail list at a place called Relish.
At this snazzy jazz joint in West Oak Lane, Simone inspires the "I Put a Spell on You" (Malibu, 99 Bananas, peach schnapps, amaretto, pineapple, cranberry, Sprite); Horne the "Stormy Weather" (raspberry vodka and liqueur, gin, triple sec, sour, Sprite); and so forth. I avoided the crooner-themed cocktails, but if they're anything like the Lemon Guava Martini, Relish Uptown Tea or cloying mint julep mocktail I tasted, you can contract Type 2 diabetes just by looking at 'em.
On one visit, though, there was nothing sickly sweet about the band's take on Bill Withers' classic "Ain't No Sunshine" — their tortured, supple rendition did him proud, and set the soundtrack for one of my more entertaining, albeit thirsty, meals in recent memory.
Jazz, soul, blues, Afro-funk and R&B reverberate nightly through Relish's nattily attired halls. For a 5,000-square-foot establishment with several distinct zones, it feels oddly intimate. The performances in the "café" float like spring zephyrs over a smoked-glass partition into the dining room, where the melodies are absorbed by the swirled carpets and the lucky ears of the diners.
Owners Benjamin and Robert Bynum know a thing or two about rhythm and blues. The brothers, 48 and 52, also have Warmdaddy's and owned the defunct Zanzibar Blue. At Relish, the Bynums make a convincing case that live entertainment can season a meal as essentially as salt, as dramatically as ras el hanout.
Good ol' Philly politics have also added a dash of intrigue (and for some, bitterness) to the Relish recipe. Before the Bynums assumed control two years ago, they were hired as consultants, and later managers, for the restaurant, at the time called Ogontz Grill. Back then, the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp., a nonprofit founded by state Rep. Dwight Evans, owned the place, which translated to the restaurant receiving more than $1 million of public money in the form of loans and grants. (In a December 2010 article, the Inquirer wrote the establishment "represents a rare, if not singular, example of a Pennsylvania restaurant so dependent on the largess of taxpayers.") Though legal imbroglio has ensued, you'd never know it from the picture-of-professionalism staff — can't recall the last time I've encountered hostesses this charming — or the burgeoning amount of seemingly happy customers. If all of us have paid, however indirectly, for Relish, the least we can do is check to see how our money's being spent.
It's a smart investment practice, even if the only return we'll get is Southern soul food under the direction of Ben Bynum, who doubles as Relish's executive chef. Serial consultant Al Paris, a Bynum brothers chef back in the day, is again in the picture, and his presence will be felt on the Relish (and Warmdaddy's) menu shortly. For now, though, Relish is still cranking out "modern Southern cuisine" between covers of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
"Modern" isn't entirely accurate, as much of the menu is pretty old-school — and that's not a complaint. I won't hate on the fluffy skillet cornbread brushed with honey butter or catfish marinated in hot pepper sauce, cornmeal-crusted and fried. The grits were as smooth and runny as the ones I've had in the Carolinas, sweet pink shrimp inlaid like stepping stones around a moat of tomato broth.
The four-piece platter of fried chicken is stripped of the exotic chutneys and honey-Sriracha glazes that accessorize their downtown cousins. Breast, thigh, drumstick and wing laid in congress, wearing crusty walnut-colored robes. I'd have preferred the buttermilk-marinated chicken fried a little lighter — the bird was less golden brown, more Jersey Shore blackened — but at least the meat was dewy and rich.
When the kitchen diverges from Southern-fried mores, it's usually in an attempt to lighten the recipes (not unlike the Bynums' goal at their new organic quick-serve, Green Soul, across the street). Seemingly, this is accomplished by replacing pork with turkey in some of the dishes: The dark-green collards, braised in chicken stock and hot sauce, drew flavor from smoked turkey tails rather than ham hocks. Scented with Old Bay, crusty fried chicken livers arrived on a flow of caramelized-onion gravy flecked with bits of turkey bacon.
Detours to the Caribbean also diversify the menu's thematic flavor, not to mention match the thatched bamboo bathrooms and "Veranda," an enclosed, tiki-tabled gazebo stitched in bee lights. Curried corn relish, an accent you'd expect to grace grilled fish at a Jamaican beach shack, appeared here as a sweet-and-spicy foil for fat fried oysters. Relish's pollo pando affected a quickie West Indies curry, naked chicken breasts iced like doughnuts with a coconut rum glaze. It tasted better than its ingredient list — the booze, plus white wine, heavy cream, curry powder, cumin, onion and applesauce — suggests.
For dessert, there's silky banana pudding with crushed vanilla wafers, a summery peach cobbler and red velvet cake, that "new" old Southern belle, prepared by local bakery Denise's Delicacies without pretense or faddishness. Not twisted or tweaked or repackaged as artisanal marshmallow or frozen yogurt — just layer upon layer of frankly scarlet cake, mortared with cream-cheese icing. Jaded dessert-mongers pick up their forks and smile.
Etta James, pegged here to a grenadine-bloodied orange-vodka concoction, couldn't have said it better herself: At last.
Relish | 7152 Ogontz Ave., 215-276-0170, relishphiladelphia.com. Dinner served Wed.-Thu., 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 5 p.m.-mid; Sat., 4 p.m.-mid; Sun., 4-9 p.m.; brunch served Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Appetizers, $5.95-$12.95; entrées, $14.95-$25.95; desserts, $5.95-$6.95.