Kids who have to go back to school might disagree, but we think September absolutely rocks. After all, it marks the end of the traditional oyster drought (May to August).Originally, oysters weren’t eaten in months containing “R” because those were the hot months, and in the days before refrigeration (and great medical care), spoiled oysters were a bigger health risk than they were worth.
These days, many still refrain from eating oysters in those non-R months because of (a) good old tradition, and (b) the fact that many oysters spawn in the summer and according to some foodies, they just aren’t as good during those months.
Because of the advent of farm-raised oysters, however, and those imported from warmer waters, it’s possible to enjoy oysters throughout the year.
Whatever. We wanted oysters. That was why, on a rainy Friday, we found ourselves bellying up to Ryleigh’s Oyster Bar at 36 E. Cross Street in Federal Hill.
Ryleigh’s has a bar and an open dining area with enormous windows overlooking the street. There’s also a loft and wine bar.
We went for the dining area where we could watch the rain fall but remain sheltered, and we settled in for a bivalve feast. We started with a half-dozen steamed oysters ($12). They were diminutive and attractively presented, with the shells pillowed on sea salt, and presented with garlic caper butter (another option is the roasted tomato butter).
For main courses, we enjoyed the Oyster Loaf Sandwich ($11), panko encrusted fried oysters with bacon, excellent tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato on a rounded loaf, served with chips. The oysters, Ed said, were perfectly done — crunchy on the outside and tender inside.
Another great entree was the salmon, bacon and BBQ burger ($11), a wonderful, and unexpected combination. The salmon was pan-roasted and tender, with lettuce, tomato and an amazing Coca-Cola barbecue sauce.
Not being content to walk out without dessert, and not being quite oyster-saturated, we decided to go for an oyster sampler, containing both Chincoteague and Blue Points. Our waiter explained the differences, promptly served us, and allowed us to enjoy.
We could have stayed all day if our appetites and checkbook had allowed. Ryleigh’s offers some creative presentations, including Char-Grilled Oysters ($10), Fried Oyster Tacos ($10) and Oyster Stew ($5 cup, $8 bowl).
Non-ostreaphiles (that would be people who don’t love oysters, hon) can explore a wide range of options as well. These are heavy on the seafood (Fried Rock Fish Bites, a Cast-Iron Crab Pot, Broiled Shrimp, etc.) but also include Federal Hill Wings, a cheese board, nachos, a beef carpaccio salad, grilled spring vegetable sandwich and more.
But really, if you’re coming for the oysters, you obviously can’t get enough oysters, and therefore you need to investigate joining Ryleigh’s Oyster Club. You get “bi-weekly bivalve updates” (says the website) and the chance to try the more than 100 varieties of oysters they claim will pass through the raw bar throughout the year. You get a checklist of all those oyster types, and you get to try at least a half-dozen of each.
The club is organized in tiers, and each tier has its own rewards (discount beers, an oyster pin, meals and more). It starts at Tier One and runs up to Tier Four (which, by the way, involves trying more than 100 varieties and is listed as “100+ Oyster Club Infamy.” If you get to that mark, Ryleigh’s promises to sponsor at stool at the raw bar with a plaque bearing your name.
Ryleigh’s is open from 11 a.m.-2 a.m. all week long. There is some on-street parking, as well as the Cross Street parking garage. Ryleigh’s has valet parking from Thursday to Sunday most evenings. The phone number is 410-539-2093, and the website is http://ryleighs.com/.
by Mary Helen Sprecher