First Bite: Reyla, A Taste Of The Eastern Mediterranean

Asbury Park adds a new rock-star restaurant to its roster of dining options.

We’re seated in a row of banquettes partially enclosed by tall archways, taking in the fading light of early evening at Reyla. Across the aisle, the bar gets busy, as folks file in from their days to begin their nights at the newest hip-hot spot in Asbury Park.

Reyla’s interior

This summer’s No. 1 opening in the beach city has the vibe. But it also has serious food as well as a setting that somehow seems soft and suited to playing background notes to a menu that’s novel in these parts, and proud of it.

Owned by the team who built neighboring star Barrio Costero, Reyla is the domain of chef Rob Santello, who has crafted a menu of Eastern Mediterranean dishes that focus on what’s from the farm, the garden, the seas. It’s all done small-plate style, which means you sample in manageable portions everything from shakshuka to fava bean falafel to cod in chermoula. One supper at Reyla gives you a tour of Santello’s culinary mind-set—and the foods of the birthplace of civilization.

We find the dining at Reyla most civilized. Those tables cosseted by archways that cushion sound mean we can see, more than hear noise emanating from the animated spirit-sippers at the bar. Many are sipping, we’re told, the Hey Reyla cocktail, made from aquavit, lemon and mint syrup, which we find pleasant, light and easy on the palate. But we bow to the Portakali, which takes raki, the favored distilled spirit of the Eastern Med, and infuses it with apricot before shaking it with citrus (lemon, orange) and sending it off with a dash of bitters. It, in turn, will send off summer in style, while giving fall a hearty welcome.


Do cocktails with a couple of bar snacks—maybe the nutty-textured crisped chickpeas dusted in Persian lime and paprika, or the cashews given yin-yang doses of both musky Moroccan ras el hanout and subtle demerara sugar.

Snag the fava bean falafel, the classic Israeli street food that here is not served crammed into pita but crowned by sprays of frisee, tart pickled cabbage, plush tzatziki and a verdant take on pesto that binds the elements on the plate.


Consider the burrata ringed by a tangle of mizuna and punched up by a curious, yet effective twosome: a coulis of honeydew and a vinaigrette studded by black truffles. It startled me as it charmed me.


The tagine of lamb and root vegetables could have merely comforted, but for two strengths that engage the mind: the make-up of the warming braise—at once thick and rich and yet somehow subtle—and the presence of both black and white sesame seeds as garnish, providing roasty, toasty pops of flavor.

Tagine of lamb

Cod in chermoula offers much of what I most love on one plate: First, there’s the herby-earthy-tangy chermoula; then there are the creamy chickpeas; then the cilantro-flecked butter; and finally, the streak of harissa that offers the option of penetrating heat. It all sits atop on mighty happy hummus, plated as it is in such good company. Call this a Dream Team of a dish.


Well, this as well as the shakshuka, which is the Ottolenghi-anointed, must-eat dish of the early 21st century. Only in the world according to Santello, the spiced-and-stewed tomatoes typically topped with poached egg are plied with baked quail eggs and a crumble of lamb sausage known as merguez, bringing both luxury and another whiff of Morocco to the mix. Smashing.


Dessert? Sure. There’s a malted milk-honey custard served in a pert glass jar to bring dinner to a fine end.

Malted Milk Custard

Or maybe take a minute to appreciate the wine list, which takes pains to make stops in Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Macedonia and Turkey, in addition to culling just the right producers and grapes from big guns that include Italy, France and Spain.

Reyla’s already a big gun in its own right, a restaurant that dares to break ground in an area of New Jersey that too often plays it “culinarily” safe. Given this smart, savvy start, there’s no reason not to anticipate with joy what more awaits at Reyla.

Reyla, 603 Mattison Avenue in Asbury Park. Open daily for lunch and dinner, except Mondays. 732-455-8333;

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