By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Dave Waddell
From our March 2023 issue
The first and obvious thing to say about Rio’s, in Searsport, is that it’s a heptagon. You can’t help but notice the shape, appended to one end of a sort of mini strip mall on Route 1. The more linear section of the building houses a company specializing in locking systems for hotel-room doors. Russell Manton owns that business, and he and his wife, Oana, intended their heptagonal space to become a café, but the concept evolved into a restaurant. In the unlikely event a guest doesn’t immediately register the dining room’s unusual geometry, decorative polygons are embedded in tabletops and the floor and dangled from the peaked ceiling. Compared to a regular old four-sided room, the shallower angles that join the seven walls produce something of a circular flow around a central stone fireplace. There’s a simultaneous impression of spaciousness and coziness — the effect is rather yurt-like, and actually, it works.
When two of us visited on a recent chilly night, we opted for seats at the table-height counter built around the fireplace, soaking up the warmth thrown by the gas flames. The standout dishes from chef Gary Cooper were several: smashed, fried sunchokes, served with a chili-and-lime aioli; house-made ricotta with smoked beets, sliced almonds, and parsley oil; fresh farfalle pasta in a buttercup-squash cream sauce laced with smoked oyster mushrooms and Serrano ham, topped with a poached egg. The nuanced cooking was no big surprise — Cooper moved to Maine fresh off a stint as executive sous chef at a stalwart restaurant on the Washington, DC, fine-dining scene.
My favorite bite of the night came from a New York strip — medium rare, alongside a mélange of charred leek and sweet onion and crisp baby bok choy, atop a swirl of silkily pureed celery root and red-wine jus. That jus was the kicker, reduced until deeply savory, almost caramelized, retaining the slightest undercurrent of sweetness. It was vaguely reminiscent of a good mole. Loading up a fork with bits of every element on the plate was a challenge worth the reward.
Much of the menu stakes out the same sweet spot as the strip steak — classics imbued with distinguishing creativity. A bone-in pork chop is accented with a sweet-spicy scallion sauce, a play on French onion soup is made with lobster broth and chunks of lobster meat, and so on. The bar, too, is adept at the classics, like a New York sour or an old-fashioned or, for something lighter, a version of a Hugo, with prosecco, elderflower liqueur, lime juice, and mint. It’d be awfully difficult to make any missteps ordering here. Even the bread service, which I’m usually loath to pay for, is sufficiently cheffed-up to warrant the few extra bucks — airy focaccia with a trio of pea pistou, whipped chive butter, and carrot-cardamom puree.
For dessert, blondies were a pleasure to polish off even as we felt borderline uncomfortably full. The bars were warmed and their edges crisped. The potentially cloying sweetness of white chocolate was smartly balanced out by the addition of miso. A scotch-infused caramel brought a toasty dimension. A dollop of whipped cream wrapped everything else in velvety coolness. I only wondered, could the kitchen not cut blondies into heptagons?