May 20, 2013

Dine Out Maine: RiRa at its best when flexing its stout-steamed mussels

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

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The upstairs dining room at RiRa overlooks Portland Harbor and the fleet of ferries operated by Casco Bay Lines.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The entrance to RiRa on Commercial Street in Portland.

DINING REVIEW

RIRA, 72 Commercial St., Portland, 761-4446; rira.com/portland

★★★1/2

HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. daily

PRICE RANGE: $3 to $22.95; dinner entrees $10 to $15

BAR: Full

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN: Yes, but limited to smaller selections

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: Yes, children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: RiRa does Irish-inspired pub fare extremely well. Traditionalists and meat lovers will enjoy the pub menu and community atmosphere. If the upstairs is open, try dining there for a less crowded experience. The stout-steamed mussels are amazing.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: ★Poor  ★★Fair  ★★★Good ★★★★Excellent ★★★★★Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

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."

 

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