Ryleigh's Oyster has expanded, and for that Baltimore County should be thankful.
Ryleigh's is a big name in Federal Hill, where it stands out as a slightly more sophisticated dining and drinking option in a sea of crazy bars more focused on volume than quality.
In early November, Ryleigh's owners opened a second location, dubbed Ryleigh's Oyster Hunt Valley (though it's technically in Timonium, in the Padonia Road location locals call "that place that used to be Gibby's").
So how does this downtown restaurant translate in the county? Based on our experience, very, very well.
Scene & Decor On a Thursday night a couple weeks after opening, Ryleigh's was slammed. Not surprisingly, the crowd skewed a little older than in Federal Hill, though in the back room, where an impressive oyster bar and drinks bar reside, there was a pretty good party.
Like the downtown location, Ryleigh's space is good-looking, with blue walls adorned with oyster-related quotes and dark wood accents. There's also a heated tent covering an outdoor bar. According to owner Brian McComas, Ryleigh's hosts live music outside after 10 o'clock on Fridays and Saturdays — though he doesn't expect the new location to be quite as busy, late night, as the Federal Hill spot.
Appetizers Patrick Morrow, Ryleigh's much-celebrated executive chef, is in the kitchen at the new location, and his food is creative and well-executed. But before we ordered cooked apps, we went for oysters.
A mixed dozen on the half shell — six Chesapeake Bay Wilds and six of Ryleigh's house oyster, the Avery's Pearl — was briny, nicely shucked and professionally presented on ice with cocktail and mignonette sauces, Tabasco and lemons ($1 per oyster during happy hour).
We especially loved the Avery's, harvested from the Hog Island area, for their intense salt and plump texture, but the Wilds — a little larger and harvested via hand-tonging — were also a treat.
With the oysters quickly dispatched, we dug into the grilled calamari ($12), which is served over a smattering of pea shoots, cabbage and a powerful, chunky kim chi sauce. The combination was intense and wonderful.
Entrees Rockfish, served over grits and a thick puree of smoked tomatoes ($23), was simple and smart. Ryleigh's pays attention to its ingredients — some come from McComas' mother's Hunt Valley farm and others come from the restaurant's brand-new rooftop garden. That care — and the kitchen's skill — pay off in dishes like the nicely cooked, well-seasoned rockfish, which could've been boring, but wasn't.
Hanger steak isn't our favorite cut but Morrow's version ($26) was excellent. Cooked just to medium rare and paired with hearty oyster mushrooms and a gorgeously cooked, quivering egg, the steak may have converted us to the hanger side.
Drinks Ryleigh's wine and beer lists are carefully edited, and also somewhat pricey. A floral glass of Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier ($10) from California paired nicely with the calamari and rockfish; it was also more interesting than what we see on a lot of wine lists.
The Revolution Malbec ($8), a more standard menu option, was equally satisfying with the steak.
Dessert A trio of warm chocolate chip and pistachio cookies ($5) were rich and sweet but we were most taken with what was on the side of our plate — several dollops of creme anglaise. It took the dessert from homespun to exceptional in a blink.
Service Speaking by phone, McComas admitted he was surprised by how crowded the new Ryleigh's was in its first weeks. In some ways, that's great; the place had buzz.
But also, the wait staff seemed harried, constantly rushing from place to place. Our waitress did a good job for the most part. She knew the menu and had a great attitude. But little things slipped through the cracks: The cocktail sauce with an oyster shooter never appeared, our water glasses stayed empty.
Those are little things, though, and details that often work themselves out as the staff gets used to the pace of a new restaurant.
And if the tables around us were unhappy with any of those small glitches, we didn't hear it — the people sitting behind us were in for their second meal in a week.
If they are any indication, so far, the county seems to love Ryleigh's.
Ryleigh's Oyster Hunt Valley
Back story: Opened in early November, this Baltimore County outpost of the popular Federal Hill oyster house and bar launched to big crowds and excited diners. County-dwelling fans of the Ryleigh's Oyster downtown location will be pleased that the new restaurant shares the same fun-casual vibe and attention to detail in the kitchen as the original, without the drive into the city.
Parking: Lot behind building
Signature dish: Ryleigh's oysters are as cold, briny and well-presented as they need to be — and with "Oyster" in the name, that's a high bar. The house oyster, named Avery's Pearl after owners Brian and Jennifer McComas' younger daughter (the oldest is Ryleigh), is salty and fresh, served neatly tucked into ice with lemons, cocktail and mignonette sauces and a bottle of Tabasco for heat-lovers. But don't limit yourself to bivalves; executive chef Patrick Morrow's menu is focused and creative.
Where: 22 W. Padonia Road, Timonium
Contact: 410-539-2093; ryleighs.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Not currently accepted
Bottom line: Great oysters and creative entrees in a busy, fun setting.