About a year after the 2016 opening of Barrio Costero, their smash modern Mexican spot in Asbury Park, partners Chris Viola, Jamie Dodge and Derek Brosseau were invited by their landlord to open a second restaurant in a space recently vacated on the other side of the building.
Ten weeks later, they debuted Reyla, which quickly found a following. It ventures a modern take on the small-plates tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean. They hired Rob Santello, who’d been chef at nearby Porta, as well as Pascal and Sabine, after 11 years as sous at the Manhattan tapas temple Alta.
“We imagined Reyla to be a woman from a New Jersey-born dad and a Middle Eastern mom,” says Viola, 36. In fact, the name mashes up the surnames of Viola’s Italian-American dad and Lebanese mom.
With the sound system and bar noise bouncing off the nearly bare white walls and Santorini-esque archways, the place can project a chill at odds with the warmth and charm of Mediterranean culture. Yet Reyla has much to admire.
Santello delivers some delights as well, like crispy chickpea snacks dusted with smoked paprika, powdered Persian lime and malt vinegar. They’re a must with Dodge’s Hey Reyla cocktail, a sassy blast of aquavit, lemon and mint.
Santello’s riff on fattoush salad—whipped farmer cheese beneath cukes, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes and toasty pita nibs in a sweet-tart sumac vinaigrette—was blissfully composed.
“I look at food in terms of music,” Santello, 46, explains. “There are base notes like truffle, high notes like lemon or vinegar. When you marry them with something in the middle, like protein or cheese, you get a bit of a roller-coaster ride.”
We took that balanced ride with his luscious burrata with lemony apple coulis, crisp fronds of bitter mizuna and earthy truffle vinaigrette. His fish dishes thrilled, especially salmon with curry-pickled cauliflower, green olives and dill oil, and cod with squid-ink hummus. Tender slices of boneless pork chop with charred-scallion labneh and pomegranate seeds hit the right buttons, but was barely warm.
Some of Santello’s dishes are too fussy for the lusty cuisines that inspire them. His baba ghanoush came as a molded paste—tasty, pretty, but devoid of the textural contrasts that animate the dish. (It’s no longer on the menu.) Though we liked the dainty duck-egg yolks in his shakshuka, turning the classic chunky tomato base into a too-intense purée robbed it of its essential rusticity.
A Silly Putty-like pad of cold feta panna cotta did little for a blasé beet salad. A braised lamb tagine was pallid on first try—the meat tough, the root veggies undercooked—but perfectly executed on a later visit. A puck of flesh-toned kibbeh naya (chopped raw lamb mixed with aioli, bulgur, herbs and capers) tasted mainly of fat.
Desserts have improved. On our first visit, only a dynamite Turkish smoked-chili sorbeto accompanying a petite star of molten chocolate cake justified the calories or cost. House-made pear sorbeto crumbled dryly with each spoonful. And while a malted-milk-and-honey custard looked stylish in its mini Mason jar, it was rubbery and cloying. More recently, goat-milk custard with orange, almond and mint was terrific, as was an affogato with spicy Turkish halvah gelato.
In the early going, Reyla lacked the balance of concept and execution that made Barrio Costero click. But it seems to be making significant progress. Viola and his team should continue to focus more on heart than hipness.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $5-$15; entrées, $10-$30; desserts, $5-$10
Ambience:Stylishly minimalist, often loud.
Service:Informed, eager to help.
Wine list:Craft cocktails and beer; appealing list of affordable, lesser-known Mediterranean wines.