Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain
photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

Liquid Riot
250 Commercial St., Portland

When you aim high, there’s always a risk your arrow will sail right over the target. Such is the case with Liquid Riot, an establishment on Portland’s waterfront that bills itself as a “brewery/distillery/resto-bar.” A place that can pull off all three of those things, and do so in excellent fashion, has hit the trifecta. Liquid Riot, which began life three years ago as In’finiti Distillation & Fermentation, is stuck at the daily double — the beer and booze made on premises are of superior quality, but the food still misses the mark.

That’s not for lack of effort. The menu covers two full pages and includes creative dishes like duck “nachos” (duck confit on house-made potato chips, with apple butter and blue cheese fondue; $13) and venison meatloaf sliders, served on pretzel rolls, with melted gruyere, Maine blueberry ketchup, and whiskey onions ($12).

My husband and I started with cod cheeks ($10). The chewy fish was coated in a crunchy layer of breadcrumbs that imparted little flavor beyond a bland yeastiness. The accompanying “beer tartar sauce” was too mild and mayonnaise-y to liven the nuggets up. The crispy chicken skin sliders ($9) sounded too weird and wonderful to pass up, and indeed, they were too weird. Each slider had a small piece of salty, deep-fried chicken skin (think chicharrón), a dollop of “smoked tomato” mayo, and some orange marmalade made with Liquid Riot’s Sour Trouble ale. That’s a lot of different flavors all vying for your attention, but their taste was still overwhelmed by the little pretzel buns. We ended up eating the crunchy chicken skin on its own.

The MicRiot burger ($15) was much better. A super-charged and super-fun take on the Big Mac, it has two beef-and-bacon patties, a smoky “special sauce,” American cheese, mustard pickles and “spicy IPA onion strings.” The result was messy but transcendent. Unfortunately, the fries, billed as Belgian frites, lacked the crispness that results from double-frying and defines the style. These were dark and floppy, oversaturated with oil. We left half of them on the plate.

The libations, by contrast, were consistently stellar. To keep the tab under $50, we limited ourselves to one house-made cola and a cocktail, then cheated by getting a 32 oz. can-growler (“crowler”) of the Sour Trouble to go ($13). The cinnamon-flavored soda ($3.50) was clear, unfiltered, and surprisingly light. The Deathmask ($12), a cocktail concocted with house-made agave spirits, Campari, curacao and sweet vermouth, was subtly smoky and exquisitely balanced, with a sharp citrus-oil flavor in the high notes. Back at home, we cracked open our crowler and found the chocolate-y, lightly sour ale to be a perfect choice for fall.

So while the brewing and distilling have hit their stride, the resto-bar aspect of Liquid Riot is still lagging behind. I suggest they aim a little lower in that area, offering fewer dishes with, in some cases, simpler ingredients, and building upon that base. But, by all means, keep the bacon in those burger patties, and keep frying those frites till you get it right.

— Hannah Joyce McCain