By Bob Sacks |
If you think you know all there is to know about Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food, but have not yet experienced the fresh, innovative take on it that is served at Reyla, recently opened in Asbury Park, you should go. Owned and operated by the savvy team from Barrio Costera, this is another hip, small plate, cool vibe place that is reinventing some classic dishes as well as offering new ones with their unique spin.
The room, with its high ceilinged archway, tiled floor and smooth, light-colored walls, has a clean Middle Eastern feel.
We perused the menu while snacking on Spanish Olives ($4), flavored with thyme, chili, and citrus juice; and hard to resist Crispy Chickpeas ($3), dusted with Persian Lime powder and paprika.
A plate of Padron Peppers ($8) seasoned with Baharat, (a Middle Eastern blend of spices including black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, cloves), charred lime halves, and garlic aioli, was one of my favorite dishes. The toothsome texture of these small green peppers from Northwestern Spain, was a perfect foil for the creamy aioli. Yum!
We did not recognize the Baba Ghannouj ($9) at first. The traditional eggplant and tahini staple was served in the form of a disk instead of sitting loosely in a bowl, and in this interpretation, far creamier and smoother than usual. Although we enjoyed the rich smoky flavor, the addition of green cardamom honey on top made for a disconcerting sweetness that distracted from the savory notes.
There is a Crudo ($12) based on the daily catch, and the night of our visit, we were happy to find it was Tuna. Although Crudo generally means “raw,” this fish was peppercorn crusted and quickly seared on the edges; then presented with parsley gremolata, black truffle aioli and “Lemon Pearls,” a secret recipe of lemon juice and agave, which looked all the world like pale yellow caviar! Remarkable!
A pleasant surprise was the chef’s take on Fattoush Salad ($8). In place of the usual lettuce, tomato and chunks of toasted pita bread, this presentation included whipped farmer cheese, halves of golden cherry tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and sumac vinaigrette. I found this preparation far more interesting than the more traditional version, as it kept drawing me back for “just one more taste.”
The wine list is well curated, with a number of reasonably priced bottles, but we opted to bring in our own wines and pay a corkage fee. The white, 2014 Gerard Boulay Comtesse Sancerre, was at its peak, providing enough richness and acidity to stand up to this boldly flavored food. For reds, a pair of Riojas from Spain: 2001 Bodegas Hermanos Pecina – Rioja Reserva Senorio de Pecina; elegant, if a bit restrained, but with good secondary characteristics; and 2005 Lopez de Heredia Crianza Cubillo, richer and fruitier, albeit with less complexity. Two different styles, but both paired well. We particularly enjoyed sharing and discussing the wines with Coral, the very knowledgeable Sommelier; she definitely knows her vino and can direct diners to ideal wine choices from the list.
An aromatic Lamb Tagine ($15), in a richly spiced sauce, paired the tender meat with mixed root vegetables, sesame, and cilantro, making for a full-flavored, but not-at-all heavy, dish.
A special of the night was Chicken of the Woods Mushrooms ($10) hand-foraged by one of the chefs, and prepared schnitzel style (breaded and fried), these wild mushrooms are a dead ringer for chicken meat in both flavor and mouth feel. If this is available, it is highly recommended.
Another pleasant surprise was Reyla’s take on Couscous ($3). An equal mix of fresh Jersey corn kernels and plump Lebanese couscous (larger than Israeli), saffron, fire-roasted red pepper, parsley and lemon was delectable, texturally interesting, and elevated this side dish to a starring role.
A standout dish, Black Sea Bass ($15), seared, with a salad of pickled fennel and orange, lush tahini cream and crunchy black sesame seeds, was very satisfying.
Dessert? Of course! I admit to never having had Halvah Ice Cream ($10) before, but this perfectly captured the flavor profile of the classic, sweetened/crushed sesame seed paste dessert, usually seen in bars or chunks. The plate was completed with a just-enough portion of molten chocolate cake, which paid homage to classic chocolate-covered halvah. Order this!
The service was gracious, skilled, and smooth, without being the least bit pretentious, and the pacing, ideal.
Whether you grew up with this cuisine or discovered it later in life, Reyla will provide you with a whole new experience. This is Middle Eastern Food 2.0. With an eye to a tasteful pushing of the envelope, but without going off the rails, this restaurant is already a worthy dining destination.
603 Mattison Ave.
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
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