Executive chef Kevin Soucy has St. Patrick’s Day at Ri Ra down to a science. He leaves his home on Peak’s Island to arrive at the Irish pub at 8 p.m. on the night before the big day. He spends a couple of hours prepping for next morning’s breakfast, treats himself to a pint, and goes to sleep on the couch. At 5 a.m., he’s ready for those brave souls who have participate in the St. Paddy’s Day Plunge. They’re served a bit of breakfast and then head over to East End Beach for a quick (and frigid) dip in Casco Bay, an event that benefits Portland Firefighters Children’s Burn Foundation. At 6 a.m., Soucy welcomes the public for a full Irish breakfast. “There’s a line out the door all day,” he tells me. “Last year we served 219 breakfasts by 10 o’clock. And almost 3,000 pints of Guinness before the day was over.”
Ri Ra is an Irish pub after all, and celebrating the traditional Irish holiday with great enthusiasm and precision is hugely important. “It’s the most organized chaos you’ll ever see,” says Soucy. But on a recent visit, I discovered that Ri Ra has so much more to offer. A step inside brings you into a traditional pub setting, with an interior constructed of salvage material from an actual Irish pub. This area is called the Victorian bar, decorated with period wallpaper and dark wood. Aside from the long bar, there’s an inviting fireplace on the elevated lounge area and a big communal table, perfect for groups, tucked into an alcove. Next to that alcove is a staircase, and the word “restaurant” painted on the wall with an arrow pointing upward. The upper level was renovated last summer, and the expansive area is now filled with stylish upholstered furniture in neutral tones, rustic tables, and trendy lighting. Inviting sofas cozy up to lit fireplaces, and the rear windows frame a waterfront vista that’s pure Portland. Brightly colored ferries and fishing boats are tied to the dock, and the last rays of sunshine glisten on the harbor. A buffet is set up for an incoming corporate event, so we settle into a smaller room with new, nautical-chic wallpaper and big windows overlooking the wharf. Sales and events manager Rebecca Warner tells me, “With the new look, we have broader appeal to different audiences.”
Soucy has been with Ri Ra for four years, and although he never pictured himself working at an Irish pub, he says it’s been a good fit. “We take Irish elements and inspiration, and regionalize them with local ingredients and flavors,” he says, pointing to the pier. “I get my fish right here from Upstream, lobsters come from over there at Ready Seafood on the other side of the ferry dock, and Bangs Island mussels are grown in Casco Bay.” He brings out a skillet of hot pimento Maine crab dip, a zesty blend with roasted red peppers and cayenne and grilled pita for dipping. “The Irish eat a lot of seafood too,” he says. A plate of fish and chips is excellent and because it’s made with rice flour, also gluten-free. The coating is hot and crunchy, the fish is flaky, and the tartar sauce is delicious, but it’s the fries that really catch my attention. They’re made from Kennebec potatoes grown at Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, fried up crisp with a tender interior. Soucy serves them with three sauces, including a tangy, house-made Guinness mustard that is my favorite. If you’re hanging out late at Ri Ra, I suggest ordering one of the six types of poutine from the late night menu, made with these addictive potatoes. Also on the snack section of the menu, barbecue brisket tacos. This cultural mash-up works very well, combining the tender, beer-braised meat with Guinness barbecue sauce and local elements that include Pineland Farms cheddar and Maitland Mountain Farm pickled cabbage. “People have a misconception about Irish food,” says the chef.
If the vision of Soucy’s food is making you thirsty, that’s not a problem. One of the three bars at Ri Ra can help you out with beer, of course, and more. The Dark and Stormy was a fabulous thirst quencher with the addition of Magners Irish Cider. The lengthy beer list includes many of the usual suspects from Ireland and England, including Murphy’s and O’Hara’s Irish Stouts, Harp Lager, and Guinness on tap and in bottles. Local brews are well represented, too.
Ri Ra, with its gorgeous view of Portland Harbor, thoughtful menu, and recently renovated restaurant, goes far beyond the concept of traditional Irish pub. It’s a delightful surprise—and not just on St. Patrick’s Day.
Ri Ra | 72 Commercial St. | Portland | 207.761.4446 | rira.com