Friday June 14, 2013 | 09:30 AM

On one of those dreary rain-splattered evenings last week, walking into the Royal River Grillhouse put us immediately at ease. The  post and beam double-height room that overlooks the river and  boat yard is a dramatic setting in which to have very well prepared grilled fare. 

Beyond its attractive shingle-style exterior, a very pleasant waterfront setting awaits

Even though it's still covered with protective plastic sheets, the outdoor dining deck is an attractive space for waterfront dining

I’ve been there twice for dinner in the last two weeks, coincidentally on rainy nights. But what was remarkable for such weather-battered evenings is that the restaurant was filled to near capacity both times.  We bumped into several groups of friends who had come from Portland, a fact that gives further credence to the popularity of this place, even for diners to travel 10 miles to enjoy very pleasant ambiance, food and service. Otherwise it’s certainly a go-to for Yarmouth and Foreside regulars.

The post-and-beam room is a dramatic country-style room  in which to enjoy waterside dining

The tables by the windows are choice, though anywhere in the room affords good river views

I used to go here often many years ago when I lived on the Foreside.  It was one of two restaurants in the area that were worthwhile.  It changed ownership about 12 years ago from the lackluster Cannery to the present day Grillhouse.

At the time the new management  had brought several veteran chefs from Fore Street to their midst, including Robert Magda,  who’s still the chef there along with executive chef, Tony Merrill, who offer a very straightforward menu of wood-grilled dishes.

The open kitchen at the Royal River Grillhouse

It was also reassuring to see that  much of the wait staff is still there, an excellent crew who know what they’re doing. If I have any gripes about the staff it’s the front of the house greeters, a crew of hostesses who always seem to be in a state of flummox when you walk up to their podium.

There are several dining spaces at Royal River.  The bar room is a very popular, cozy-clubby room.  Otherwise the coveted tables are in the main dining room, which overlooks the water; and beyond that is the large outdoor dining deck, which is a very pleasant spot at lunch or on balmy summer evenings.  At this writing the covered space is still enclosed with protective clear plastic pull downs until our weather finally acts like summer.

On our first visit we enjoyed a good rendition of fried calamari that was served with a tasty coating of sea salt and vinegar and a dusting of Parmesan, all of which was set over greens.  I also enjoyed an excellent entrée of panko crusted haddock placed over  kohlrabi slaw and garlic mashed potatoes. 

Fried calamari salad

At our most recent dinner we shared the evening’s special starter of fried soft shell crabs enlivened with lardoons of bacon and a mild chipotle mayonnaise.  I prefer sautéed or grilled soft shells because I think the distinctive flavor of the crab remains intact; but it was an excellent way to begin our meal. 

Fried soft-shell crabs

My dinner mate chose the seared tuna as an entrée.  It’s prepared sashimi style with a dome of micro greens and wasabi aioli, pickled ginger and fried wontons.  The excellent sushi-grade tuna was perfectly rendered and my friend loved it. 

Seared sashimi style tuna

And I was very pleased with my dish of double-thick grilled pork chop because it was incredibly tender.  All too often double chops tend to be tough if not correctly cooked. These were as tender as tenderloin.  What gave it such succulence was the brine of birch beer and spices like cumin and coriander that gave it not only flavor distinction but incredible texture and tenderness.  It was cooked on the wood grill  fast over high heat—overcooking pork will render it tough—and served with a frizzle of fried sweet potatoes and accompanied by a grilled hash comprised of limas, zucchini and corn. 

Double brined pork chop

We finished off with a duo of ice creams.  One was an espresso chocolate-chip gelato made in- house and another dish of vanilla ice cream from Shaine’s, the locally made Maine ice cream purveyor. 

Double dish of ice creams, vanilla from Shaine's of Maine and housemade espresso chocolate-chip gelato

At one point I asked our waiter about the bread because it was really good.  It is in fact house-baked but in the brick ovens of their new restaurant, the Tuscan Brick Oven Bistro, which recently opened a few miles up the road in Freeport and commandeered by executive chef Tony Merrill, offering a menu of brick-oven pizzas and entrees based on locally sourced ingredients. 

If the new place is as good as the long-running Grillhouse, then it’s certainly worth investigating.  For now, it’s reassuring that this Foreside waterfront establishment is very much a  reliable haunt for excellent fare at lunch, weekend brunch and dinner served in such a good-looking waterfront setting.
 

 

 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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