It would be tempting to dismiss Ri Ra as just another upmarket chainlet, noisy and casual enough for the kiddies but with sufficient style for the grownups. But there's some good eating and drinking to be done at these Irish-inspired restaurants.
Bethesda's Ri Ra, which opened last October in the old Andalucia space on Elm Street, is the sixth in the Charlotte-based chain, which stretches from Portland, Maine, to Raleigh, North Carolina. Like similar endeavors–Mon Ami Gabi, which channels French fare, and Maggiano's, where Italian family-style platters rule–Ri Ra is selling an idea. Owners David Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan, both from Dublin, aren't so crass as to hit you over the head with shamrocks, leprechauns, and other blarney, but the sepia photographs and memorabilia from Ireland–including architectural artifacts from pubs–are geared to get you into a Joycean mindset.
From there, it's a short jig to the lengthy roster of mostly Irish and English beers and Irish whiskeys, the latter reverentially chronicled in an elegant binder. And why not? Boutique beers and spirits are a big hit with the thirtysomethings lined up five-deep in the pub. Drink enough of the Redbreast, a 12-year-old whiskey that goes down as easy as Bailey's Irish Cream, and you'll start feeling pretty reverential yourself.
At this point, unless you're auditioning for a role in an O'Casey play, it's probably wise to think about food. The ever-changing lineup of oysters, including Malpeques and Belons, glistening on ice at the raw bar in the dining room is one way to go. Ireland is also known for salmon, and though Ri Ra doesn't smoke its own, the rosy translucent slices are enhanced by scallion mayo, crunchy pickled onions, and hearty slices of house-made Irish oatmeal bread. These, along with a big plate of cheddar-and-scallion potatocakes and a pair of salads–the Ri Ra, with bits of baby spinach, smoked salmon, and bacon, and another with goat cheese, grilled leeks, and field greens–are best bets for starters. Steer clear of the roast duck and bangers parcels or anything involving puff pastry, which is more gummy than puffy.
This is one of those restaurants where main courses, all in big, shareable portions, shine brighter than appetizers and desserts. So risk the beautifully seared double-cut pork chop. Or have breakfast for dinner–one of those rib-sticking Irish repasts with thick bacon, pork sausages, black-and-white "pudding" (blood sausage), baked beans, and a grilled tomato. There's also a New York strip with a drizzle of Irish whiskey sauce. Fish (beer-battered cod) and chips are suitably crispy, and classic corned beef and cabbage perks up under parsley-flecked cream sauce, a modern innovation that works. Homier still are two robust stews, Guiness-braised beef and roasted parsnips and lamb.
Potatoes are everywhere–as crust on the shepherd's and chicken-pot pies, in a memorable potato-and-leek salad, and in several mashed variants: with parsnips in colcannon, and studded with scallions in scallion champ. There's even a tribute to a nursery favorite–mushy peas, as pablum-like as they sound.
More-delicate palates will find solace in a fragrant seafood broth with mussels, prawns, and fish, referred to as Dublin Fisherman Stew. Irish tea-poached salmon is another fish-lover's pick, though the linguine underneath is cooked way past al dente. Ditto for pappardelle with shrimp, one of several gratuitous pasta offerings on the menu.
Ri Ra is at its weakest when it strays too far from its Irish roots–and because the menu is large there's way too much straying. This is not the place to order crabcakes (undercooked and too heavy on the backfin) or crab-stuffed trout with a surfeit of herb cream or scallop scampi (are we in Italy?). Paring down the menu would give the place more culinary oomph. I'd hang onto the cheddar-Irish bacon burger and the smashing Wicklow dip, a Gaelic riff on French dip, with shaved roasted lamb and Guinness jus. But is there really a need for risotto at an Irish eatery?
A little fusion is fine for dessert, too. The cakes have been dry and the crisps merely okay. But otherworldly Irish Cream-spiked crème brûlée will make you believe in the culinary luck of the Irish.