News & Press

Zely & Ritz featured in News & Observer

March 20, 2005

The News and Observer Lifestyles section that chronicles a full day in Chef Sarig’s life at the restaurant on March 20, 2005. It’s a fascinating story about an amazing chef with beautiful pictures of Sarig in action.

This article originally appeared in the News & Observer on March 20, 2005

A long journey to dinner

Author: Susan Houston; Staff Writer

Location, location, location.

Chef Sarig Agasi learned the wisdom of the real estate broker’s mantra the hard way when he tried, and eventually failed, to bring a little taste of New York to North Raleigh with a restaurant called Butterflies.

Now he’s out to make his mark on Raleigh’s restaurant row, Glenwood South, with a chic new tapas eatery, Zely & Ritz, that opened Dec. 28.

The location at 301 Glenwood Ave. is key to the restaurant’s survival, say both Agasi and his wife and business partner, Nancy. Not only is there more foot traffic on Glenwood, but the people walking by — college students and young urban professionals, for the most part — are more likely to come in and try Sarig’s little plates of Mediterranean-inspired dishes (priced $7 to $13) than the people shopping at North Raleigh’s Sutton Square.

“Mostly it’s that street,” Sarig Agasi says, pointing outside, his low voice further softened by the burble of his Israeli accent. “From Peace Street to Hillsborough — it really has the nightlife.”

Not even a Glenwood address is a guarantee of success in the risky restaurant business, though. Over the past three years, the space now occupied by Zely & Ritz has been home to a deli (Northern Star) and an Italian restaurant (The Cockeyed Chef).

That’s why both Agasis are putting in long hours to make a success of Zely & Ritz. (The name is a combination of names of four family members.) What follows is a day in the life behind the scenes with two of Glenwood’s newest tenants — tenants who hope to make this trendy street home for years to come.

The restaurant won’t open until 11 a.m. for lunch, but Friday mornings are busy behind the closed doors, as early as 7:30 a.m.

“We’re starting off with a frenzy,” says Nancy, in constant motion from kitchen through bar to dining room and back. Like her restaurant, she is dressed mostly in black, with a necklace as a colorful accent. “I’ve got deliveries, and I’ve got a meeting, and Sarig’s not here.”

Through small, dark-framed glasses, she checks a wine delivery. “Oh, this is the wrong thing. This I don’t want,” she says, holding out a bottle of wine for the deliveryman to inspect. “I had wanted the other Angeli, not this.”

In the kitchen, Sarig bends over the check ledger, punching keys on a blue calculator. He got up at 7 a.m., ran 10.5 miles, had two pieces of whole wheat toast and picked over the selections of lamb and salmon at Sam’s Club. He will spend most of the rest of the next 12 hours in the kitchen, doing whatever needs to be done, from lining the garbage cans with plastic bags to plating the most delicate desserts.

But now it’s time for a cup of espresso and a delivery of four boxes of organic greens — romaine, red leaf lettuce, Swiss chard and collards — from Eastern Carolina Organics.

As the first few customers trickle in for lunch at 11:15, Sarig changes into traditional chef attire — gleaming white jacket, black and white striped pants and kitchen clogs. This modern chef’s favored baseball cap, worn instead of a toque, is black with the red Zely & Ritz logo.

He leaves most of the lunch duties to sous chef Paul Headley, a holdover from Butterflies days. Lunch is a time when people want to get in and out. It’s not a tapas time, when customers sip glasses of wine and share and savor several small plates of intensely flavored food.

So Sarig quietly goes about preparations for dinner tonight or beyond — expertly filleting fish, making focaccia bread and creating an array of desserts without once consulting a recipe card.

“I started to do desserts after the pastry chef at Butterflies left,” Sarig says. “It’s very different. It calms me down a little.”

How Glenwood grew

During lunch service, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the chef calmly bakes individual tart crusts then fills them with a sweet-savory mix of caramelized roasted pine nuts and rosemary. He prepares a hot water bath for cooking orange pots de creme and strains vanilla beans out of the rich custard base for creme brulee.

Sarig remains calm when he has to compost a tray of creme brulees because someone turned up the oven too high.Those in the kitchen sneak a taste — even the garbage tastes good here.

He does leave the kitchen once, at 11:40 a.m., to say hello to repeat customer Bud Whitmeyer, co-owner of Capital Fitness Spa Health Club. Whitmeyer’s wife, Suzanne, had a shop called Elements at Glenwood and Peace in the mid-1990s, “before it was even called Glenwood South,” he says.

Whitmeyer points to the renovation of the Pine State Creamery in 1999 and the 510 Glenwood project in the next block as two of the major developments in the growth of Glenwood. The Creamery houses such trendy tenants as Sullivan’s and Enoteca Vin, just two of several restaurants, bars and lounges that line Glenwood South. On weekends especially, 20- and 30-somethings spill onto the sidewalks into the wee hours.

“When you come down here now, it’s so exciting to see life,” Whitmeyer says. “It’s kind of real big city.”

At 2:30 p.m., Sarig wraps up in the kitchen, makes his own lunch and talks about his biggest challenge. “We need to get the word out, and people need to understand the idea of the farm and the organic food in general.”

The farm is Coon Rock Farm, owned by software developer Richard Holcomb. On its 35 acres, he will be growing just the produce and raising just the animals that Sarig wants for the restaurant.

Before he was a partner, Holcomb was a regular at Butterflies. “The food was fantastic. The wine was terrific. But the location just sucks,” he says. So he invested $150,000 in the restaurant and will use his Orange County farm to supply it.

The road to Raleigh

During the break between lunch and dinner service today, Sarig will make panna cotta, a silky Italian custard with gelatin. But sometimes he runs.

He’s a marathon man, in training for the April 18 race in Boston, where he hopes to finish in under three hours.

But the 26 miles of a marathon is short compared to the journey Sarig has already made from his home in the northwest corner of Israel. It was on the Rosh Hanikra kibbutz in 1985 that the young member of an elite Israeli military medical rescue unit met a Tufts University student taking an intensive Hebrew language class. One taste of Sarig’s wild boar stew, and Nancy was in love.

Three years later, they were married and living in New York City. Sarig worked at several jobs, including managing a restaurant.

When he was accepted at the California Culinary Academy, the couple relocated to San Francisco. Sarig had a four-week externship at one of New York’s most influential restaurants, the four-star rated Bouley in TriBeCa. So admired was executive chef-owner David Bouley that nearly 40 percent of his customers opted for the chef’s daily specials, such as roasted skate with licorice sauce with celery root and wild mushroom ragout.

“We had eaten there once, and I said, ‘OK, learn to cook like that,’ ” Nancy says.

And Sarig did, going to work there when he graduated in 1993. The restaurant left its stamp on him.

In 1995, with Sarig working in the union kitchen of Lespinasse in the St. Regis Hotel, the Agasis saw an article in Food & Wine magazine about young chefs in Raleigh and Durham. Intrigued, Nancy called some of the chefs mentioned — Ben and Karen Barker of Magnolia Grill and Scott Howell of Nana’s, both in Durham, and Walter Royal of Angus Barn in Raleigh — and floated the idea of relocating to the area.

“Everybody wanted to talk for an hour. They were always so nice and pleasant and polite and convincing,” Nancy says. “It sounded like the greatest place in the world.”

The Agasis visited in January 1996 and moved in April, when Howell had an opening in his kitchen. Nearly three years later, Sarig left Nana’s to open his own restaurant.

With Butterflies, in Sutton Square on Falls of the Neuse Road, Sarig attempted to re-create Bouley’s sophisticated style and flavors in North Raleigh.

Some people got it and became loyal customers and friends. Sarig’s highest compliment came from a diner who told him, “I don’t need to go to New York anymore now.”

But far more people either didn’t get it or couldn’t find it. After 4 1/2 years, Butterflies closed.

“The only thing I didn’t know was the difference between Durham and Chapel Hill and Raleigh,” Sarig says. “And there’s a huge difference.”

One difference? Durham has trendy, walkable Ninth Street near Duke’s East Campus, and Chapel Hill has trendy, walkable Franklin Street near the UNC campus.

Then Raleigh got Glenwood.

Kevin Summers and Dean Ogan have been there since 2001. Their Rocky Top Hospitality company now operates three restaurants in the revamped creamery building: Bogart’s steakhouse, the more casual Hi5 and the Red Room, a tapas lounge.

“The recipe for success is to have a well-balanced food-bar concept,” Summers says. And success in a densely packed restaurant row can lead to success for the competition down the street or even in the same building. Zely & Ritz shares an address with Sushi Blues and Cody’s Asian Bistro.

Improvising

Sarig is in charge of the food, but Nancy chooses the wines. She wants the wait staff to be knowledgeable about them, so today she has scheduled a 4:30 p.m. tasting of four reds from Spain, where tapas was born. Allen Lindley of Tryon Wines pours and talks about each one as the servers taste and take notes. Nancy is the most conscientious student, puffing her cheeks out as she swirls the red wines in her mouth.

“This should be a no-brainer wine to sell,” she tells the wait staff after the last wine pour, a $32 Altos de Luzon 2002. “It’s so delicious and it’s the perfect price.” Then she dashes home to North Raleigh to the couple’s three children.

Meanwhile, Sarig handles another crisis. His spanakopita appetizer sold much better than expected at lunch and he may be caught short at dinner. So he’s blanching pot after bubbling pot of spinach leaves, to mix with cheese and cover with puff pastry.

He also has roasted a tray of chicken and some potatoes and cabbage for the staff meal. Two of the staff, hostess Brenna Savage and waitress Amanda Winge, are brand-new; Heather Hall and Tracy Vicere are veterans.

General manager Joey Allabach, a Butterflies holdover, hopes the notes on the menu and the servers can make clear Zely & Ritz’s vision of tapas. Choices are divided into starters (roasted beet salad and baby octopus stew), meats and seafood (roasted emu and grilled quail), and vegetables and starches (risotto with edamame and baby brussels sprouts.)

“We try and tell people they can do any number of things,” Allabach says. “You can create exactly what you want to eat.”

As the wait staff finish their meals, Sarig tells them about the night’s specials, which include venison stew and his new panna cotta. Then he points out vegan items: the house salad, the squash soup, the hummus, the stuffed cabbage, the lentils — “if you want, no butter” — and “the greens with no prosciutto.”

Looking for turns

Ten minutes before dinner service starts at 6 p.m., Sarig is playful, boasting about his Paco Jet ice cream machine that uses special blades and vacuum pressure to whip ice cream, sorbet and mousse into creamy submission. He dares a taster to guess the secret flavor of an ice cream he created. (It’s kudzu.)

Within the first 30 minutes, all the tables are filled except the communal one.

The crowd looks a little older than the typical Glenwood demographic, skewing toward 40-something rather than 20 or 30. And they’re foodies, sniffing and swirling their wines, tasting from one another’s plates.

A waitress seems flustered by a customer on a special diet, so Sarig goes out to talk to the diner. “With the poached flounder, cook a little cabbage in veg stock and add some champagne vinegar,” he tells the line cook. “She can have no fat, no dairy and no starch.”

Line cook Garland Poole has joined the sous chef at the stovetop and the kitchen fills with the smells of grilled beef, chicken and fish, of onions and mushrooms sauteeing. Sounds of sizzling join the relentless chop, chop of the prep cooks, and the kitchen gets hotter and hotter.

In the dining room, animated conversations and the click of silverware almost drown the piped-in jazz. Nearly all the place’s 50 seats are filled. “They all came at once,” server Hall says between trips from pickup counter to table. “We’ll probably have another run at 7:30 and 9:30.”

But the later runs don’t materialize; it is the second night of the ACC men’s basketball tournament, a time for delivery pizza, not tapas. Glenwood Avenue is shiny with rain and nearly empty.

By 7:55 p.m., it is slow enough for the chef to eat his dinner — snapper with special-order cabbage and mashed potatoes.

He’s still filling in wherever he’s needed, often plating desserts but also calling out orders (“expediting,” in restaurant lingo) and showing a fill-in cook how thin he likes to see his tuna carpaccio (very).

“I prefer to be over there,” he says, pointing to the stove, where blue flames sometimes leap two or three feet high as the cooks calmly shake and flip food in saute pans. “I like the action.”

If he weren’t in the kitchen pounding tuna paper thin, fill-in cook and Glenwood veteran Cody Bryson would probably be cruising the street with his girlfriend, the new Z&R waitress. “This is the only spot,” he says. “This is where the money’s at.”

In the long run

It’s after 11 and the doors are closed at Zely & Ritz. A party of four lingers at the communal table. Sarig talks to them — more Butterflies’ regulars — then takes a seat at the other end of the table. The bartender pours one of the Spanish reds from the wine tasting, a regular way for Sarig to wind down.

“Tonight was weird,” he says. “It’s definitely reflecting March madness.” Ideally, he would like to do two and a half to three “turns” of tables each night; tonight was barely two. But he has checked the reservations list and “tomorrow night is much busier already.”

The runner inside the chef knows this is no sprint, that if he is to succeed, he has a long road ahead of him.

He’s just glad the name of that road is Glenwood.

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