If you have any fond memories of mall dining, I expect they’re from your childhood, when your family or fellow teenagers were happy to patronize dull casual-dining outlets and middling food-court franchises. The restaurant options at Somerville’s new Assembly Row outlet mall don’t look much different: There’s an Earls (think Canadian Cheesecake Factory) and local chain versions of seafood, Mexican, ice cream and pizza—convenient, certainly, but hardly destination dining. So I expect locals to be surprised and delighted by River Bar, which breaks the mold of mall restaurants with some fun, fresh ideas.
First off, there’s the space, an airy glass box that seats 36 indoors at a bar, a kitchen bar and some tables, with views of the nearby Mystic River throughout. More impressive is the 123-seat patio with its own bar, more water views and two fire pits that threw enough heat on a recent sub-freezing night to keep some big parties happily out-of-doors. Then there’s chef Patrick Gilmartin, whose love of Asian street food made his bygone Staff Meal food truck one of the most interesting and tasty in Boston. Add Jess Willis’ bar program, aiming democratically at cocktail nerds, beer geeks and less adventurous drinkers, and you might start forgetting you’re surrounded by discount footwear shops.
As the name suggests, River Bar is foremost a bar, with three dozen beers and ciders focusing on Northeastern U.S. craft brewers but offering some global range. Cisco Grey Lady ($6.50 can), a gently funky witbier from Nantucket, Maine’s Baxter Pamola Xtra, a mild American pale ale ($5 can), and Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne ($12 bottle), an intriguingly complex, sour Flanders red ale, are representative of the list’s nerdy-but-accessible focus. The tight, affordable wine list of 20 bottles ($32-$96, most under $55), 14 of them available by the glass ($8-13), includes seafood-friendly whites like the stony 2013 Michel Delhommeau Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie ($9 glass, $36 bottle) and richer reds such as the velvety 2009 Château Peyros Tannat ($12 glass, $44 bottle), a respectable budget Bordeaux. The specialty cocktail list shows admirable craft and love of lesser-known bitters, as in the herbally rich The Hollow Men ($11), with rye, Cynar, Cocchi Rosa, Becherovka and Yellow Chartreuse, or the Autumn Still ($10), with bourbon and the weird-but-good caraway accent of kümmel, plus Averna and Angostura bitters. The lovely lavender Eagle’s Dream ($12) creamily combines gin, crème de violette, egg white and lemon, while the toddy-ish Mind Glow ($10) of rye, cinnamon-y Bittermens Hiver Amer, lemon and honey is a radiant winter warmer.
The short food menu centers on snacks to complement an evening of leisurely drinking, like a dish of Togarashi almonds ($7) amply dusted with salt and Japanese chili powder, superb housemade
tapioca-based shrimp chips ($7) with mild black-garlic aioli for dipping and gastropub-worthy Nelly’s pickles ($4) of cucumber, carrot and asparagus. More substantial shareable plates include the venerable British pub stalwart Scotch eggs ($9), here a deep-fried quail egg surrounded by mild chorizo. Grilled corn ($8) reduces the delectable messiness of Mexican elotes by taking it off the cob. Corned beef and cabbage dumplings ($9) show Gilmartin’s fusion-y truck-food legacy at its best, filling three beautifully browned potstickers with otherworldly housemade corned beef, accompanied by a rye dipping sauce I’d happily drink by the mug. Chicken and brie terrine ($10) reflects his fine-dining chops in a subtly flavored bit of charcuterie. Gratineed littlenecks ($13) with cider and Gruyere are simple, fresh and fine, prettily adorned with the chef’s favorite garnish: Korean chili threads, dried and thinly shredded capsicum chilies as slender and vibrant as saffron.
More substantial plates include a whole redfish ($21) grilled with great skill to just-pinkness by the spine and simply dressed with strips of preserved lemon. Another bit of flawless cookery is evident in a juicy, crisp-skinned roasted Vadouvan half chicken ($22). The grilled housemade Chinese sausage sub ($13) recalls a fat, tender bratwurst more than Staff Meal’s famous soppressata-like cured sausage; it’s delicious enough to merit the price tag. A special of “spaghetti” and meatballs ($13) builds on excellent veal/beef/pork meatballs in a bright tomato sauce, then adds textural interest through the use of housemade ramen noodles instead of Western pasta. It’s the kind of fun dish that Gilmartin does best, inveigling timid eaters down interesting paths through nifty combinations of the familiar and less so. With his kind of kicky, drink-friendly food, the terrific bar program, a new Orange Line stop nearby and especially that spectacular patio in warmer weather, River Bar ought to draw throngs of locals, including the sort who don’t care if they do any outlet shopping at all.
-Corned beef and cabbage dumplings
-Whole grilled fish
-Roasted Vadouvan half chicken
Hours: Dinner, nightly 4-11 pm (limited menu till 12:45 am); lunch, Mon.-Fri, 11 am-3 pm; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 11 am-3 pm
Parking: Giant lot
Liquor: Full license
River Bar 661 Assembly Row, Somerville (617-616-5561) river-bar.com