Fed Hill Also-Ran Becomes A Dining Destination
By September the new restaurants that have opened this summer should be review-ready. Meanwhile, some familiar places have been changing chefs, concepts, and more. Based on the magically revived Ryleigh's Oyster (36 E. Cross St.,  539-2093), maybe every restaurant should close down for a few months, rethink and renovate itself, and emerge as something not only better but entirely different. After taking over the old Sisson's spot, Ryleigh's spent a few years not mattering. The leftover brewing equipment felt like an inherited burden, and the food was boring.
Now, in the summer following last winters' renovation, Ryleigh's has killer good looks, with the wide-open, wall-less facade that evokes fashion models in meatpacking districts. By day, fresh sunlight and sweet street energy come pouring through (a new air conditioning system keeps out the humidity), and at night, customers disport themselves against an iron railing just beyond the front wall. Removing the brewing tanks inside has opened up room for an additional bar, a sexy slate number, where Ryleigh's has uncovered the room to shuck and sell a smart selection of raw oysters.
There are further physical changes--new brick flooring, the removal of obstructing walls and arches, the installation of rad g-force XLerator hand-dryers in the rest rooms--all of them beneficial. But the biggest change is in the kitchen, which has been handed over to Patrick A. Morrow, formerly the chef de cuisine of Vin. And, unexpectedly, Ryleigh's has turned into a place to go for the food. It might not feel like this on a crowded, chaotic evening, when the patrons look like they've been pumped full of Red Bull and protein shakes--which is why you should think about making a first visit on a Saturday afternoon. Sit at the oyster bar and order up a dozen and hope that among the selection are the thrillingly plump and briny Wellfleets from Massachusetts. Oysters get served, handsomely, in ice-filled deep-dish pizza pans with cups of horseradish, cocktail sauce, a bracing little mignonette sauce, and a personal bottle of Tabasco wedged in the ice.
Then play around with the left side of the menu, where, perhaps given more room to wander away from pub staples, Morrow is flourishing on rectangular white plates, flirting with preciousness but dodging it at every turn with good ingredients and generous portions. There's an exquisite tuna niçoise salad ($10), composed on a base of membranous English cucumbers, piled with snappy haricot verts and quartered hard-boiled eggs, laced with olive tapenade, and topped with perfectly handled ruby squares of seared raw tuna. Garnished with capers and shallots, tuna tartare ($10) is arranged in a solid square, its flavors brightened but not covered by a soy reduction and citrus vinaigrette.
A triumphant scallop trio ($13), the preparation of which changes with the weekly menu, was working the pig, wrapping one big sweet white disc in bacon, spiking the center one with prosciutto, and placing the third atop some luscious pork confit. A brand-new appetizer, tender jumbo shrimp wrapped in swirls of crispy won ton skins ($10) and served with a sweet chile sauce, was as pleasurable a thing as a kitchen's showed us in months.
Some of these things were just about perfect modern pub food. Fairly priced entrées sent out on a busy Thursday evening had their pleasures amid some awkward moments, ranging from the over-roasting of a white bass ($20) to the overpiling of soba noodles beside good and moist grilled salmon ($18). Crab cakes, which are minutely seasoned ($22), are available in a crisped-up pan-fried version that teases out their mild flavor.
The full menu, which is served all day, includes a standard pub roster of burgers and sandwiches--let's toast those buns! Right now, Ryleigh's Oyster feels to be gently coaxing its customers into more adventurous gustatory fare while keeping the partiers happy with mostly well-prepared basic fare. It's working, and Ryleigh's matters.