An Irish pub with a gastro fare-inspired menu? If that seems incongruous, allow me to wax nostalgic. On my last trip to Ireland (a trip that included fretful navigation of distressingly narrow, cliff-wrapping roads), I discovered that Irish food can be delicious.
Instead of the expected bland boiled meat and potatoes, I feasted on local salmon and mussels with homemade oatmeal bread and rich butter. And plenty of Guinness.
It was good, and because of RiRa’s overt Irish presentation, I wanted RiRa to be good too.
It is. Or, rather, I see that it’s trying.
My preference is to avoid chain dining, but RiRa is a different type of chain because each of the 12 restaurants (in locations from Las Vegas to Atlantic City) are uniquely fashioned. Each website describes particulars and history of the decor – a restored bar that dates to 1740 in the original North Carolina RiRa; the Burlington, Vt., location’s library dining area that pays tribute to Ireland’s rich literary tradition.
At the Portland RiRa, look for a potbelly stove that, according to the website, hails from Spike Island Prison, Ireland’s “Alcatraz” (and originally a 7th-century monastic settlement) in Cove, County Cork.
There is much to enjoy about RiRa’s Portland restaurant, including its Commercial Street location perched right on the water, many of the staff’s engaging Irish accents and two levels overflowing with charming antique details.
That noted, the system itself is a little confusing. With a lively, boisterous drinking area filled with local music on the first floor, the space can feel congested. Not always, but on a busy night, be prepared to elbow through a crowd. Once upstairs, though, the atmosphere shifts to spacious and relaxed.
The dinner menu divides into starters, salads, mains, sides and simple fare. If your preference is brunch, Failte and Erin Go brunch options are advertised on the weekends.
From the upstairs corner table for two, my brother Douglas and I watched the Casco Bay ferry boats. Having eaten many meals at RiRa, my brother was the best possible consultant.
Because he’s a writer too, I imagined us in a sort of Guinness-fueled literary repartee. Instead, we ordered hard liquor. With 28 types of Irish whiskey and a cocktail list of two dozen items, mad props to the bartenders for their generous pours and creative efforts. (Irish Iceberg, Kilkenny Cosmo, anyone?)
We asked our server for a translation of “RiRa,” and he said, “having a good time.” A Google translation is “excitement,” and while the menu items themselves were at times less than exciting, we definitely had a good time.
Stout Steamed Mussels are from Bangs Island, and, I suspect, part of the kitchen’s effort to embrace local sourcing and appeal. The mussels — plump, sweet and grit-free — were served piping hot in a soup of Guinness, shallot, garlic, bacon and cream ($12.95).
Given that Standard Bakery Co. is literally – not figuratively – right across the street, I hoped for an accompanying “crostini” that tasted not like a bland, stale version of grocery store bread. Ah, well. The mussels themselves, farmed in Casco Bay, are among the best in the area, and I was happy to eat them.
RiRa’s Golden Beet Salad ($9.95) is another win – sort of. With maple candied walnuts, pickled red onion and goat cheese on top of the peppery rocket and white balsamic vinaigrette, the taste itself was fantastic, interesting and diverse in texture and composition. However, there was too much lettuce and too few crumbles of goat cheese.
Eschewing the Salmon Sheehan with brussels sprouts, smoked bacon, potato and onion hash, and pinot gastrique ($22.95), we chose the Guinness Braised Pot Roast (15.95).
The pot roast is braised short rib with cipollini onions, potatoes and parsnip in a Guinness stock. The spicy parsnip and cipollini onions, which are smaller and slightly flatter than an average onion, made this dish especially interesting.
The super-tender meat and homestyle presentation added to the experience. Rather than upscale comfort food, this felt like straight-up comfort food.
The Beef and Guinness Stew ($13.95) was a similar experience, with Guinness simmered beef, carrots, onions, mashed potatoes and soda bread.
Or, as my brother noted in our post-dinner exchange, “Aside from some slight variations (more gravy, whipped potatoes instead of fingerlings, no parsnips), pretty much the same experience as the pot roast. Which stands to reason.
“In both cases, they achieved the expected goals without any unnecessary flourishes or twists. In this way, they were like a really good cover band. They were paid to play Nirvana (or, in this case, maybe Van Morrison), and that’s exactly what they did, note for beefy note.
“I’d describe the pot roast, and then include as an addendum something about how, if you don’t like parsnips or are really hoping for a serious gravy stain down the front of your shirt, the beef and Guinness stew is a viable alternative.”
For vegetarians, there are three non-side, non-salad options. Choose the Baked Mac n’ Cheese ($13.95) with vintage Irish cheddar sauce and crumb topping. The online menu advertises penne (the in-house menu does not specify), but my serving was canneroni (think ziti tubes, but much shorter). With massive chunks of flavorful roasted Portobello mushroom, this is straight-up comfort in a bowl, and I suggest it ranks among the finest macaroni and cheese in the state. Add chicken or shrimp for $3.95 and $5.95, respectively.
Cioppino ($18.95) is a Portugese/Italian dish. RiRa’s version, a nod that makes sense given Portland’s ready access to fresh seafood (and not included in other locations), includes mussels, shrimp, haddock, salmon and crab with sweet red peppers and leeks in a spicy tomato broth.
Taken individually, the pieces were tasty. As a sum? The broth was mild, the textures too varied, and the flavors seemed strange all mixed together.
Again, I understand the idea of local branding, but RiRa’s kitchen does the standards really, really well. Why mess with that formula?
The mussels alone? Outstanding. Mixed with a mishmash of other slightly overcooked seafood, and the flavors were barely distinguishable.
But I want to end on a positive note, again from my brother.
“Overall, I’d probably say the mussels were the best dish that we ordered,” he said. “Part of that was that RiRa had the good fortune/sense to buy fat, fresh, local mussels that hadn’t a single grain of grit in their bellies. Maybe it was just the inherent quality of the Bangs Island mussels or the way they were prepared, but their texture sort of transcended that of your common bivalve. Is there any way a Guinness cream sauce can ruin something like this? There is not.
“As with all the dishes, the broth’s seasoning was handled with a light and subtle touch, accentuating the natural flavors of the fish without overpowering or even competing. Which is no minor detail in the arena of pub food, which seems all too often to be seasoned heavily and exclusively with a salty blend of salt and salt.”
Ultimately? Go to RiRa. Stick to pub fare and Irish standards, and you will leave happy and full-bellied.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”