Sunday, November 09, 2008

About Ryleigh's Oyster

"But when it comes to oyster bars, Baltimore is reviving. That renaissance took a huge leap forward with the the birth of Ryleigh's Oyster in 2007."

From Rowan Jacobson in an addendum to his definitive book The Geography of Oysters.

Despite the Chesapeake Bay oyster harvest's tragic decline, this is how Rowan Jacobson describes the way Baltimore is reclaiming its stature as an oyster mecca. The establishment known as Ryleigh's at 36 East Cross Street, which Jacobson credits with boosting forward that "renaissance," had been operating as a watering hole with food in the space where Sisson's previously evolved into Baltimore's first brew pub. The decision to reinvent itself as Ryleigh's Oyster proved auspicious.

The transition began a little over a year ago after Patrick Morrow (at right in the picture above), formerly a sous chef under Chef Chris Paternotte at Towson's now closed Vin, became executive chef and focused on oysters enough for the name change to Ryleigh's Oyster. Ever since, Chef Morrow has seen to the availability of at least eight of the 72 different branded raw oyster varieties served up here over the past year. Most are raised on oyster farms where the temperature and salinity of the waters in which they grow are subject to rigid control.

A couple good examples are the deep, firm, salty, and flavorful Glidden Points from Maine and the very salty, yet flavorful with sweet finish Raspberry Points from Prince Edward Island. Selections of each were shucked and presented to me to photograph by oyster bartender Josh Foti (pictured at left in the photo above). All too soon, they had become my first "comp" on behalf of Unique Culinary Adventures after I slurped them down before remembering to do the photograph.

Oysters have long been strictly seasonal in Bawlmer---limited to months bearing the letter r, when the harvest of wild Chesapeake Bay oysters is legal. That seasonality has continued in recent years despite the emergence of aquaculture and increased year-round availability of oysters from disease-free waters often in more northerly latitudes. All too often, between May and August, most oysters available in Baltimore at retail as well as in many restaurants, taste horrible.

The presence of Ryleigh's Oyster has significantly raised local awareness that things can be different. "We sold more oysters in the summer than we did in October," says chef Morrow. He also made a point of noting the delectablility of many oyster genre during May. That's because they're farmed in or harvested from waters that have yet to warm up so soon after the passing of winter. As a general rule, the colder the water, the better the oyster.

Very importantly, the variety of raw oysters available year-round has no less do do with the phenomenon Ryleigh's Oyster so quickly became than what has sprung than the bounty of its kitchen. One item by which I was very much taken was Panko Encrusted Fried Oysters-adobo aioli "mini cobb salad, (served with all its ingredients cooked on the half shell) . Having personally tasted and photographed the entries of all nine finalists in America's National Oyster Cook-off for each of the past three years, I have yet to sample a preparation that more intrigued me. "Is the recipe proprietary?" I asked. Patrick agreed to share it, after noting: "We kind of teach each other how to do it. Nothing is really written down." Having just slurped down instead of photographing a dozen Glidden Points and Raspberry Points, my instinct was to spare the likely disruption in the kitchen and additional block of Chef Morrow's time that teaching me would require.

Quite auspiciously, however, as we were discussing those "Panko Encrusted Fried Oysters-adobo aioli"mini cobb salad" Chef Morrow shared two tips about how to bread oysters of which I was unaware after years of frying them at home according to a myriad recipes. The first presented itself as Chef Morrow explained how he dredges his oysters directly into panko after removing them from their liquor. The rationale is that to first dip them in a wash such as eggs and/or milk ultimately detracts from a delicate oyster flavor profile. The second tip emphasized the importance of first opening an oyster's "lip" in order to bread not only the lip's exterior, but also its interior. Otherwise, during frying, the lip is likely to expand and open enough to detach a significant amount not only of breading, but also flavor bearing fluids. For me and I would suspect quite a number of oyster cooks, these tips could prove to be quite valuable.