by Alice Levitt
123 Church St., Burlington, 860-9401
Back in the day, I had to hurry and eat before or get stuck having chicken nachos for dinner (pretty good), an Irish boxty (unpredictable) or burger (blah and overpriced).
But last May, the game changed when Rí Rá's menu underwent a major overhaul, complete with membership to the Vermont Fresh Network.
Now, the options are both more authentically Irish (see the photo at right) and more authentically Vermont. I recently passed by the restaurant and was drawn to the new bill of fare. Would the reality match up to the descriptions? I braved a Sunday night football crowd to find out.
I was hidden in a front corner away from the game, which was evocative of an Irish bar filled with nooks and crannies, but very dark to photograph.
A range of creative salads and mini sausage rolls would have to wait. I needed some belly for my belly.
Pork belly, that is. And the potato cakes had it. This Jewish girl was envisioning shredded potato like latkes, but these were like meatballs made of creamy mashed potato, with a panko crust to hold them together.
Cheddar-mustard sauce, in pools below the cakes and blobbed on top, sounded like potential overkill, but added a tangy edge of sharp flavor without too much extra glop.
The pork belly turned out to be only a thumb-sized chunk of thinly sliced, crisp meat on each cake. I wanted more. What I could have done without was the pile of skinny frizzled scallions on top. Though they looked like an artful pile of hay, they had the texture to match and made my jaw ache as I tried to tear through them.
I was excited to see a kebab-shop-style wrap. The hooley kebab is available with lamb, chicken or veggie burger chunks inside, but lamb was the obvious choice. Since there's no cone on a spit (go right outside to Amir's Kebab for that), the meat is more like chunks of a thin patty, flavored with rosemary. Shreds of lettuce and onion and chunks of tomato mixed with Sriracha mayo and tzatziki sauce for a combination very much unlike the gyros I grew up eating.
But somehow, it still brought me back. Next time, I might ask for my sauce on the side to keep the meal healthier, but I do envision a second time, and I'm a kebab snob.
Part of what converted me may also have been my selection from the nine choices of sides. The cilantro-cabbage slaw was as light, bright and crunchy as one could have hoped for, with a slap of acid that cut through the creamy flavors of the kebab.
With seven appealing burgers on the menu, I knew I had to try one. Rather than double up on pork belly with the Piggy Back, I tried the Green Mt. Monster.
The patty was cooked beyond my requested medium, but that was where my complaints ended.
No worries about this dish being conceived at corporate for the small chain. The burger is all Vermont, from the crisp, sweet slivers of apple on top to the pile of shredded kale that served as a base.
The sweet bun tasted like egg-washed brioche and it stood up to the pile of food that also included candied bacon and Big Lenny's relish, a maple-flavored, aromatic concoction of peppers and onions made in Rutland. It may sound like a sweet-on-sweet assault, but the well-seasoned, thick patty and the kale calmed the sugar of the other ingredients. A layer of sharp cheddar would have helped them all stay in place better, though.
The handcut fries were chip-shop chubby, crisp and very salty, which I like. But it was a warm side of McDonnell's Curry Sauce that really transported me. Maybe I'll have to start rethinking trivia Tuesdays.
Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.