Posted: August 12, 2007

There are no diners yet at the cafe tables set on the flower-fringed sidewalk in front of Rylei. And who knows when they will come?

It may still be a while before this blue-collar commercial stretch of Frankford Avenue south of Cottman is ready - spiritually, culturally, gastronomically - for the carrot-orange sorbets of a striving BYOB and the carefree bon vivant-ness of alfresco dining.

But the point is that it's here: Rylei is open for business, and Northeast Philadelphia, long a virtual desert of real culinary ambition, has a pleasant new oasis to feed its hungry.

The concept isn't that far off from the dozens of BYO bistros that have sprung to life in gentrifying neighborhoods across the region: Husband-and-wife veterans of the restaurant scene decide to open a cozy little place closer to home, and name it after their kids, of course. "Ryan" plus "Leila" plus 38 seats and a dream equals "Rylei."

But for Jennifer Brennan-Vargas and her husband, Jose Vargas, who met during their front-of-the-house years at the Palm, this project on their home turf of Mayfair provided extra challenges. There is the obvious question of whether this value-driven neighborhood would pay for cooking with quality ingredients - and they've addressed that fairly with entrees that hover between $18 and $20 and a bargain three-course weekday menu for $30.

A bigger question, though, was who would cook? The unlikely answer is Jose, 26, a longtime waiter whose culinary education consists of studying cookbooks from the Inn at Little Washington and the French Laundry, Wikipedia queries into the elements of molecular gastronomy, and three years of trial and error at home. His volunteer sous-chef is his father-in-law, Terry Brennan, a retired state social worker who has never cooked, who wishes to be paid for his labor in beer (Victory Hop Devil preferred).

It sounds like a tall challenge, and it is, judging from the sparse crowds I've seen early on in Rylei's simply done, dark red dining room. But Brennan-Vargas and her young assistants (neighbors, son and friends) welcome everyone with an earnest charm, gilding the table with some impressively fine crystal stemware for a BYOB.

But it's Vargas' cooking that should win Rylei a second look. It is impressive from someone so inexperienced - with a natural feel for placing good ingredients in smart combinations that also show some polished technique.

Homemade gnocchi are glazed in very lightly creamed tomato broth that hides a brunoise of mirepoix - tiny bits of carrot and celery that add a subtle textural crunch to smooth and tender dumplings. Fresh summer gazpacho uses blended cucumber and peppers to give snap to sweet tomatoes; lime lends it a rounded tang, and a garnish of seared shrimp and lump crab dresses it up with a seafood flourish.

Given Vargas' early influences, the baseline cooking here is rooted in classic French techniques, the plates simple but refined. The potatoes are passed through a fine sieve and buttered to a silky puree to accompany the filet tips, which are finished with a richly fortified meat glaze. Truffle oil and butter lend the sheen of luxury to the equally fine puree of parsnips that accompanied the Copper River salmon.

The brick-red salmon was just a tad overcooked, but the dish as a whole was delicious. A marvelously earthy Israeli couscous filled with intensely steeped mushrooms made up for a slightly dry chicken.

Other dishes put good ingredients on simple, flavorful display. A starter of nicely seared sea scallops came with baby greens tossed in a bright vinaigrette that highlighted the scallops' sweetness.

Two perfectly cooked double-cut New Zealand lamb chops posed alongside a Mediterranean saute of roasted tomatoes, eggplant and peppers studded with pine nuts and raisins. A tender loin of pork, pan roasted and served with a nice white wine pan sauce, arrived with a quick saute of radicchio and napa cabbage - a pleasantly light summer take on the heartier pork and cabbage classic.

A thick steak of lemony Hawaiian butterfish (escolar) arrived in a light vegetable broth filled with soy-glazed mushrooms and a scoop of sushi rice, a deft pan-Asian touch to the menu's largely European palette.

But Vargas is still new in the kitchen, and it's unclear which direction he'll eventually head. He's yet to display any of the Latin influences of his native Dominican Republic, where he has fond memories of his grandmother roasting whole pigs and making homemade sausage. More likely, diners will encounter evidence of Vargas' budding fascination with the cutting-edge techniques of molecular gastronomy.

It may come in the form of passion-fruit "caviar," or parsnip beignets filled with hot olive oil, or the complimentary intermezzos we devoured at our meals - a bracingly delicious spoonful of carrot-orange sorbet, and a ripe strawberry splashed in balsamic and dusted with the startlingly good crunch of smoked sea salt.

Vargas might have stopped right there, because his experimentations with dessert fell far short of his savory ideas.

The caramelized plantains and figs were dry. The chocolate banana napoleon was awkward to eat, but had the right flavors. And though I loved the idea and taste of buttercookie ice cream, the soupy mess that arrived, unsuccessfully thickened with gelatin instead of eggs, was a reminder that some novel ideas may not be ready for prime time.

But Rylei as a whole is ready to become more than a novelty for a neighborhood whose dining luck is due to change. Those sidewalk tables are waiting.

Next week: Craig LaBan reviews Cosimo in Malvern.

Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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