After a near flawless recent dinner at Ryan’s Fine Grocer & Delicatessen, the biggest dilemma facing the 5-month-old hybrid food emporium, deli and locavore-loving restaurant seems to be devising a bigger sign to accommodate “fine dining” to its mouthful of a name.
Ever since the Ryan family — yes the same Ryans of the history-soaked Fort Worth neighborhood of Ryan Place — opened up Ryan’s in February, on a hipster stretch of Magnolia Avenue ( Brewed, Shinjuku Station, and Live Oak Music Hall are all neighbors), it has been doing a respectable grocery business and a gangbusters lunch service.
So dinner, which began in early May, seemed the next logical food frontier.
Ryan’s brings a level of meticulousness and care to every aspect of its newly launched dinner service, yet it’s all delivered in a refreshingly unaffected manner where flavor, not flamboyance, rules.
In fact, the laid-back simplicity of Ryan’s starts with its clean-lined interior, anchored by an ocher-stained, Zamboni-smooth concrete floor, pendant lights hanging from an industrial ceiling, and floor-to-ceiling window panels bringing in cascades of sunlight.
This spare, yet highly comfortable stage is designed not to distract from the highly thought-out offerings from Ryan’s kitchen, many of which are overlooked underdogs of a typical dinner — such as bread, salad appetizer and sides.
The bread, courtesy of nearby Black Rooster Bakery, is delivered perfectly toasted but its taste is ratcheted up by the simple addition of a rosemary-spiced salt mix.
Ryan’s apple and bleu salad ($7) is an almost hilariously large plate (suggested warning label: “Salads are much larger than they appear on the menu”), filled with a grocer’s shelf worth of greens, the crunch of honey-toasted pecans, the salty piquancy of Stilton blue cheese, all in a gossamer-light white balsamic vinaigrette.
A smaller version of this salad would make for a nice acidic counterpoint to the rich and fatty cheese and charcuterie plate ($12) — whose star among the Italian salumi, prosciutto and dilled Havarti is a quince paste that could make a sandal edible. The salad could also play well with Ryan’s pizzalike escargot ($13). Rectangles of puff-pastry are tattooed with tiny snails and a duxelles of exotic mushrooms including hon shimeji, and all bound up in a butter-and-garlic-cream sauce. It’s a Frankensnail of earthy flavors.
The level of culinary skills Ryan’s devotes to its sides allows them to challenge the mains for plate supremacy. The Parmesan couscous incorporates tart prickly pear cactus, while being redolent of cheese and lemon juice. The chayote gratin is a revelation; the mini-Mexican squash, interlaced with a thin wash of bechamel sauce, are flavorful and, thankfully, free of that mealy starchiness that can sabotage a typical potato gratin. And, finally, pappardelle, pesto, sweet corn and grilled asparagus come together in a side that is wide-egg-noodle substantial, herbaceous and snappy.
These side dishes hold their own on plates filled with adroitly spiced and seared skate wing ($22), spread out on the plate like some kabuki performer’s fan; lamb loin chops ($24), with a crust forged from simple salt and white pepper and grilled to a perfect medium rare; and Southwest quail ($18), burnished with a Southwestern spice rub and sporting a potato-chip-crisp exterior over a succulent interior. I forgot my table manners and tore at it like a ravenous shipwreck survivor.
Tweaking two classic desserts (all are $6), Ryan’s amps up a clichéd bread pudding with hits of chocolate, espresso, cinnamon, juniper berry and ginger. Meanwhile, fresh Texas peaches, flamed in brandy, bring a booze-powered flavor to the perfectly conventional wedge of cheesecake.
With synth-pop’s Sneaker Pimps playing on Ryan’s Pandora-driven sound system, there is little doubt about the restaurant’s hip vibe. But then Brittany Ryan, Ryan’s owner, intones the restaurant’s cooking credo — “everything in balance” — and you arrive at yet another epiphany: Underlying Ryan’s sober quest for “balance” is a kitchen determined to use as many off-the-farm ingredients as it can to deliver strikingly high-quality dishes in a low-key atmosphere, where the food makes the most delicious noise of all.