May 20, 2013

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

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

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.

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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.

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).

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