Restaurant review

At Ryder's, affordable gastropub fare from 'Food Network Star' contestant

For The Baltimore Sun
Though unpretentious, Ryder's is still more sophisticated than the average corner bar.

You have to wonder why a "Food Network Star" contestant who lives in New York would open a corner pub like Ryder's in Upper Fells Point.

But then you find out Malcolm Mitchell's family moved to Baltimore when he was young before ending up in Columbia, where he grew up. His mom still lives there.

"I'm more local than people think," said Mitchell, who has been spending several days a week at Ryder's since it opened in May.

"I have a kitchen manager," he said. "You don't have to have a chef in the kitchen all the time."

Mitchell, who operated restaurants in Los Angeles and Richmond, Va., before they closed, had recently been cooking at pop-up events around town, including at Liv2Eat and Blue Agave in Federal Hill.

"I was testing the waters," he said about opening a restaurant here. "I was planting seeds."

When the owner of the building on Gough Street asked him to change the vision of the space, formerly occupied by Cockey's Restaurant and Bar, he accepted. The restaurant is named after the owner's dog.

Mitchell, who has been a personal chef to celebrities like singer Mary J. Blige and actor and comedian Chris Tucker, describes his gastropub menu as having a "little upscale twist to it."

For instance, he cooks his bison burger in duck fat and bastes it with butter to keep the lean meat moist. It's an inspiring patty bolstered by caramelized onions, smoked Gouda and a horseradish-and-steak-sauce aioli.

But what first caught our attention was the Cheetos mac and cheese. It's more than a gimmick. It's a satisfying update of a familiar comfort food.

A small cast-iron skillet was delivered to our table filled with garden hues of green (peppers), red (tomatoes) and bright orange (a blend of five cheeses) tossed with cavatappi pasta.

Cheetos are part of the cheese sauce, which includes cream cheese, Parmesan, aged cheddar and smoked cheddar. It's a great way to eat the addictive snack food without getting orange stains on your fingers.

We sampled other items from the small-bites section of the menu, including the Caribbean jerk chicken skewers. Tender, spicy ribbons of chicken were threaded on small wooden sticks and served with soft plantains, both glistening with a captivating housemade Jamaican peach jerk sauce. The condiment is served on the side for dipping

The fine short-rib tacos were served open face, with shreds of the tequila-braised meat and pickled red cabbage atop zigzags of a tongue-tingling chipotle barbecue sauce and then punctuated with a cooling cilantro cream.

And while Ryder's is a tavern, its drink program is more sophisticated than at some neighborhood bars.

Sure, you'll find Natty Boh and orange crushes, but the shelves behind the bar are lined with an assortment of decent wines and liquors. Bottles of wine are half-price on Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Signature cocktails include a whiskey smash with Lillet Rose, Sagamore rye, grapefruit, raspberry and mint, and an El Diablo with sloe gin and ginger beer. Various draft and domestic beers are offered, too.

The place is small. If you count the outside tables, it seats 50 people, who occupy bar stools with backs (thank you, management) and high-top tables inside.

Besides appetizers, patrons can choose from flatbreads, salads and big bites. The chef's choice entree (a rib-eye with side dishes) wasn't available the night we visited.

We didn't mind. Mitchell's shrimp and grits — a variation of a dish his mother, Leola Felder, originally from Charleston, S.C., makes — is a terrific taste of the South.

While soupier than some versions, it's a generous bowl of shrimp, andouille sausage, spicy Creole cream sauce and creamy Parmesan polenta.

This is the dish that took Mitchell to the second round in the eighth season of "Food Network Star," where he was a finalist.

We also enjoyed the Mediterranean naan flatbread. A crunchy base set the stage for caramelized onions, Kalamata olives and roasted red peppers dotted with feta cheese, Parmesan, cherry tomatoes and a swab of roasted garlic mint oil.

At Ryder's, you can end your meal with drinks like an Irish coffee or espresso martini. We decided on a nonalcoholic toasted marshmallow milkshake since the kitchen was out of its brioche bread pudding.

It was a disappointment. The milky beverage with an unmanageable glob of sticky marshmallow wasn't as appealing as the rest of dinner.

That is hardly a deterrent for us to return again. Our real regret is not living in the neighborhood. Street parking can be a challenge.

But Mitchell's focus on creative, affordable bar food is worth the travails of squeezing a car into a tight spot. He has a realistic vision for Ryder's.

"We're not trying to be pretentious," he said. "At the end of the day, it's a corner bar with good food."

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Ryder's

Rating: ✭✭✭

Where: 1901 Gough St., Upper Fells Point

Contact: 443-869-2439, facebook.com/ryder1901

Open: 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$12; flatbreads and "big bites," $7-$15

Food: Upscale gastropub fare

Noise/TVs: In the early evening, the bar was noisy, making conversation difficult; four TVs.

Service: Our server, who was also working behind the bar, was efficient in explaining dishes and taking our order. We liked that he offered to split the check among us at the end of our meal.

Parking: Street parking.

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Not accepted.

[Key: Superlative:✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent:✭✭✭✭; Very good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising:✭.]

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