The restaurant-bar occupies the space across from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that was most recently home to Mari Luna Bistro (rest in peace, crab enchiladas). The service was fast, though we were dining on a quiet weeknight when there were no performances taking place across the street or at the nearby Lyric. The space is divided by a new wall that separates the bar, which surrounds three TV screens, from the clothed-table area, where we were seated by our waiter. The navy-blue walls were starkly decorated, with the exception of two crossed oyster rakes, an oversized J.O. crab seasoning can sitting in a niche, and an obvious Shakespeare quote in large white letters on the wall: "Why, then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open."
The menus, which are the same as the other branches', began with another appropriate line from literature, a quote from Jonathan Swift: "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." That's fair to say, as the thought of cold, slimy organisms is not immediately appetizing to the uninitiated diner. But Ryleigh's is a casual-enough setting with a wide-enough menu to not be intimidating.
The char-grilled oyster appetizer ($12) is an ideal introductory dish for the oyster noob, in that it's loaded with butter and cheese. Served on a bed of sea salt, the shells were filled with garlic herb butter, roasted tomatoes, and warm tender meat, topped with browned and slightly melted Parmesan cheese. Unlike a lot of cooked oyster creations we've tried in the past, the fillings didn't totally drown out the sweet, briny taste of the meat.
Like many of the dishes, the crispy wonton jumbo shrimp appetizer ($12) was particularly upsetting to dismantle—each shrimp was carefully wrapped in delicate wonton strips, sitting tails high in a bed of warm diced tomatoes soaked in a sweet chili sauce. But we had no regrets destroying the arrangement as quickly as we did—it was one of the best items on the menu. The shrimp were simultaneously tender and crunchy and spicy and sweet, a delicate layering of different textures and flavors.
The dinner menu is mostly staple seafood plates such as jambalaya ($16), shrimp and grits ($18), crab soup, and fish and chips ($16), though most feature creative combinations that depart from the traditional dishes, such as the seared scallops ($19). Sitting in butternut-squash puree between heaps of soft, buttery Brussels sprouts, the three large golden scallops were almost unbelievably tender. From the sandwich menu, we ordered the ahi tuna burger ($16) seared—and we would recommend not ordering ahi tuna any other way. The Thai marinade and garlic chili aioli were subtle enough that we could appreciate the cool freshness of the pink fish. The underwhelmingly plain salad with citrus dressing that accompanied it did not deter from our experience of the sandwich.
The servings were moderately sized but very filling, so we had to put down our forks and fingers, too full for oysters. We returned the next night to explore the raw oyster selection, along with some more starters, a crisp Wyndridge hard cider ($3), and a cocktail. The spicy apple ($9), made with apple cider, cranberry juice, and two flavored whiskeys in a cinnamon-sugar-rimmed martini glass, was disappointingly not spicy, and really didn't taste like much more than apple cider with a splash of whiskey. We had previously tried the grapefruit crush ($8) made with grapefruit vodka, Sprite, and fresh-squeezed grapefruit. With juicy pulp mixed into the crushed ice, the drink was refreshing, though not as tart as a grapefruit fan would like and not nearly as boozy as a vodka fan would like.
The Maryland crab soup ($6 for a cup) was rich and chunky with substantial crab lumps, but the grilled Rhode Island calamari ($12) was more a leafy salad than squid, when we're used to mountains of tentacles and rings. That disappointment aside, as a salad it wasn't bad. With balsamic reduction, peppadew peppers, and garlic hummus, the ingredients were not what we would normally associate with calamari and made for a pleasant combination.
We ordered a half-dozen Honeysuckle oysters from Maine ($14) and a half-dozen Barren Island oysters from Maryland ($12), served together over ice with cocktail sauce, Tabasco, lemon, and tangy mignonette sauce. The shells were filled with clear liquor (that's foodie speak for oyster juice) and substantial oyster meat. The Honeysuckles were super briny, too much for the taste of my partner though not quite excessive enough to keep me from enjoying their subtle sweetness. They paired well with the much milder and buttery Barren Islands, harvested in Hooper's Island, which had full, succulent meat. Another friend swears by the briny Salt Grass from Prince Edward's Island and the slightly sweeter Katama Bay oysters from Massachusetts. The Avery's Pearl are specially sourced for Ryleigh's and are a solid standby. We didn't need much of the provided condiment; the flavors of the oysters were enough on their own. As far as their erotic powers go, we'll just leave it with a wink and no comment.