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Restaurant review: Ryleigh's is still a pearl in Federal Hill

For sheer handsomeness, Ryleigh's is hard to beat.

This was the old Sisson's, which plain-old Ryleigh's took over, and for a few years languished in, before closing down and reopening in 2007 as a Ryleigh's Oyster Bar.

The best view of Ryleigh's is from the sidewalk on Cross Street, from where arched floor-to-ceiling windows create an alluring continuous space between outside and in. Ryleigh's still has the good bones of a commercial market-side building, and the 2007 renovation created a contemporary, airy space that folks slurp up.

Shawn McClure has been running the kitchen since the departure of original chef Patrick Morrow for Bluegrass. McClure's menu is broadly appealing, a seafood-heavy collection of popular appetizers, entrees and sandwiches. But there are flashes of personality and flair, enough to hold the attention of Federal Hill's slightly more adventurous diners. At least for a while.

The intelligent menu is promising, but the results, on two visits, were consistently uneven. A first visit was on a Tuesday evening during Ryleigh's "Shore Night on the Hill" promotion, when the restaurant features $2 steamed crabs along with specially priced oysters, grilled lobster and broiled shrimp. It's a great promotion, and Ryleigh's essentially converts into a madhouse, with long waits for tables and, especially at the bar, overwhelmed and inattentive service.

Had the food fallen victim to a slammed kitchen? A second visit, a few nights later, on a less busy evening, didn't make much difference. There were still the same problems with inexact cooking and blandness.

Simple things work best. An appetizer of blackened rockfish bites, served with a spicy cocktail and lemon aioli sauce is fine little starter, for instance. Old Bay-coated wings, crispy-skinned and meaty, got thumbs up. But no other appetizer worked well.

It was hard to figure out the appetizer of panko-encrusted oysters, in which the oysters, too heavily breaded and over-fried, were layered on leaves of romaine lettuce, over another bed of lettuce, with hard-boiled egg and onion. It struck me as something that may look different when it's plated by the chef but that wilts in the hands of others. I think the appetizer of grilled calamari and golden Peppadews probably looked, and tasted, wonderful at one point, but, when we tried it, the squid was flavorless and limp and there was no evidence of a coherent curry red lentil puree.

A half-pound of broiled shrimp doesn't offer anything that steamed shrimp wouldn't — no richness, no butteriness. Simply a dash of cayenne or a saltier cheese would have done wonders for a bland crab and lobster mac-and-cheese. An oyster stew is watery and under seasoned.

Entrees had their moments. The best of them by far was a grilled, dry-rubbed, teres major steak, served with aged cheddar grits, haricots verts and a honey-chipotle sauce. Not only was this entree beautifully presented and perfectly executed, it was also priced, at $18, more than reasonably. Shrimp and grits came over well, too — the shrimp themselves were grilled brightly, smoked tomatoes added a moment of interest, and a the Cajun barbecue sauce gave the dish a pleasant, enveloping flavor that was missing elsewhere.

But pan-fried Maryland Shore-style crab cakes were among the unappealing dishes we tried. The cakes were oversized but very mushy, a few jumbo lumps mixed with too much bread. Accompanying sweet potato fries looked like they were from a food service, and a fresh corn salad had an off, sour taste. Served on Thai peanut rice that tasted like duck sauce, a pan-roasted rockfish is flavored with what the menu says is a sweet Thai peanut sauce. It doesn't do any favors for the rockfish, which is absent the wild and nutty flavors it's prized for.

A pan-seared scallops entree is another example of a menu item that may have seen better days. It sounds good and ambitious — served with English peas, candied pecans, roasted fingerling potatoes and bacon jam. But scallop entrees can't afford to be sloppily plated, as ours was, with overcooked scallops that tasted of a barbecue sauce. Or had the house's bacon jam devolved into a kind of barbecue sauce? It was hard to tell.

Dessert consists of vanilla creme brulee, an ice cream trio and fried cheesecake "sushi," which we tried. This had, at one time, to have looked like sushi — the menu mentions kiwi, lime and strawberry — but now it's cream cheese in deep-fried phyllo dough served with a chocolate sauce. Weird.

Even on the less busy night, the oysters took a very long time to arrive. Signature "crush' drinks made with fresh juice took forever to make their way across the room, too, from the bar where they are prepared to the one where they're not. The bar service on the busier night was poor but was otherwise energetic and enthusiastic. Oysters are still a big attraction here, and Ryleigh's runs a good daily special on select varieties until 7 p.m.

All that said, I'd still recommend Ryleigh's for drinks and oysters if you're in the neighborhood. It's a lively, well-tended and good-looking spot. The sandwich menu looks like a reasonable option, as does the weekly barbecue menu that was presented as an alternative to us. I'd try it on Shore Night — everybody else does.

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Ryleigh's Oyster Bar

Where: 36 E. Cross St., Federal Hill

Contact: 410-539-2093

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Prices: Appetizers, $9-$10; entrees, $14-$24

Food: ✭✭

Service: ✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor:✭]

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