Tearing out the beer-making equipment and adding a slate-topped raw bar has been the second-best change at Ryleigh's. The best change was installing Patrick Morrow as executive chef.
In December 2006, Ryleigh's Brew Pub became Ryleigh's Oyster Bar. What an improvement. The indifferent food has been replaced with an inventive menu that changes every week but might include a salad with duck confit and goat cheese ($10) or coriander-crusted tuna ($16) served with tomatillo salsa and mashed purple potatoes.
Since it opened about five years ago, Ryleigh's has always been a handsome restaurant in a great Federal Hill location. In its new incarnation, the exposed brick walls and worn wood floors remain, and the bar areas on two floors still roar with activity. On a warm Saturday evening, crowds of happy patrons practically spill into the street.
But now, the downstairs bar dispenses raw oysters instead of house-made brews. Ten, sometimes 15, varieties of bivalves are flown in daily. For those (like me) who can't tell the difference between a Connecticut Blue Point and a New York Saddle Rock, the staff is comfortable making recommendations.
I can't remember the names of the particular oysters we wound up trying, but these poor anonymous creatures were lovely. For starters, they were attractively arranged in their half-shells on a platter of ice, garnished with a couple of lemon wedges and a horseradish-ketchup combo that was heavy on the horseradish. More importantly, they were notably fresh and grit-free, with that subtle taste of the sea that good oysters are all about.
A half-dozen oysters make a fine appetizer, but other options also showcased the restaurant's creativity, particularly with seafood. Choices included tuna tartare with jalapeno pesto and a blood-orange glaze ($11), oysters fried in panko ($9) and mussels sauteed with tasso ham, fennel and stewed tomatoes ($9).
We went in a different direction and ordered a trio of dips - edamame hummus, a feta spread and a red pepper puree, which came with crisp fried pita wedges, carrots and cucumbers. The creamy feta and flavor-rich red pepper were the better choices. The edamame hummus, with its deep earthy undertones, was a worthy experiment that didn't quite work.
Though the restaurant was crowded and our waiter looked harried as he rushed from table to table in the smaller upstairs dining area, he faltered only once, neglecting to follow through on a no-mushroom request for our steak sandwich ($11). He apologized, took the blame and offered to replace the sandwich. Very professional, we thought.
With or without mushrooms, this sandwich, with its tender slices of meat, creamy, piquant blue-cheese topping and chewy baguette, was several cuts above the norm. Too bad it was accompanied by lackluster potato chips.
Another delicious entree was the shrimp and grits ($14), featuring several large sea creatures with their heads still on - antennas and all. These were arrayed on a creamy mound of grits and topped with a thick and spicy barbecue sauce. The shrimp, cooked and served in their shells, were notably moist, and the assertive barbecue sauce married nicely with the milder grits.
Even a simple choice like grilled salmon ($15) showed a quiet confidence. A vinaigrette drizzled atop the fish provided a nice counterpoint to its richness, and a side of roasted red potatoes added just the right heft to the plate.
One oddity about these main courses, though, is they were served without any vegetables. All three entrees looked rather lonely in the middle of their large white plates.
Desserts at Ryleigh's included a creme brulee ($6) and chocolate mousse ($6), but we opted for the strawberry soup, a combination of sweet angel food cake and tart strawberry compote ($6) that provided a light end to our meal.
As we walked out, we had to push past the crowd gathered around the upstairs bar. Even with its new, more grown-up menu, Ryleigh's is still just fun.
Ryleigh's Oyster Bar
Where: 36 E. Cross St., Federal Hill
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $4-$12, entrees $7-$24
Food: *** 1/2 (3 1.2 STARS)
Service: *** (3 STARS)
Atmosphere: *** (3 STARS)
[Outstanding: 4 STAR -- Good: 3 STAR -- Fair or uneven: 2STAR -- Poor: 1 STAR