On a recent Saturday night, Free Street’s newest arrival and Portland’s latest tapas restaurant, Sur Lie, was in the throes of entertaining a mix of patrons, mostly 35 and older.
This time last year, Sur Lie’s bar/lounge room was home to the dearly missed Roost House of Juice, and the restaurant’s dining room (they knocked down an adjoining wall in renovations) was once Compositions, a flower shop.
Owners Krista Cole and Antonio Alviar lived in Denver before moving to Maine. Their combined experience (Krista’s business degree and Antonio’s restaurant management skills), and love for Denver’s small plate dining trend, led them to write the business plan for Sur Lie back in 2012. After over a year of scouring Portland’s commercial spaces, they stumbled upon the quaint, red brick storefronts of Free Street.
Nearly six months after opening, Sur Lie is still that curious restaurant not everyone has had a chance to get to, despite Free Street’s rather central, albeit shielded, location. While they’ve been written up in Portland Magazine, plenty on Eater Maine, and bartender Matt Sherwood won the 2014 Woodford Reserve Competition for his Midnight Manhattan cocktail, Sur Lie seems to be slow to break out of its shell.
It must be said that while the drink and food menus at Sur Lie are top-notch in a surprising, breath-of-fresh-air kind of way, there’s something about the place that doesn’t fully land. And it’s not for lack of trying. The service is impeccable, the smells from the kitchen are blissful, and the menus are focused and original.
But it seems as though someone spent more time decorating the restrooms than the actual restaurant. The bar/lounge area has little to no artwork or embellishments on the walls, and the apple crates affixed to the wall behind the bar were there from the Roost House of Juice days.
It’s hard to pinpoint Sur Lie’s personality. One minute Michael Jackson is blasting on the Pandora station, and the next it’s jazz. The space is open and airy, but the mood is dark and vague.
For now, the restaurant seems to rely heavily on the talent of Chef Emil Rivera and bartenders Sam Babcock and Matt Sherwood. Rivera and Babcock worked together in Washington, D.C. at Think Food Group and their contributions to the restaurant seem vital.
Babcock’s definition of a cocktail menu is a mix of pre-prohibition knowledge infused with a quirky modern-day palate. He whips up two or three drinks at once, and can talk you through your food choices as he goes – “start with one or two plates, and then order more from there,” he’ll say. He’ll offer tastes of whiskeys you’ve never heard of and tell you all about the distilling process for each. In other words, Babcock is the real deal. His Grey Ghost cocktail was recently featured on the happy hour menu (4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday) for $8 (usually $10). Dickel white whiskey is combined with house made apple and pear syrup, angostura bitters and pink peppercorn. This drink will hook you from the first sweet sip – savor it.
Other happy hour features include $4 Banded Horn, Foundation, Bunker or Oxbow pours, three wines by the glass for $7, and usually two cocktails. There’s also cheese and charcuterie plates, Sur Lie’s famed sweet pea hummus, fried baked potatoes, mussels and fish bites – all discounted during happy hour.
Sur Lie can seat about 75, and plans are in the works to possibly add seats. The dining room is spacious, in kind of an empty way – additional seats might help to add an element of cozy.
For now, the restaurant will remain closed on Sundays but plans are in the works to open seven days a week come summertime, which would also add brunch. By May, the restaurant has plans to start serving lunch.
If you haven’t wandered over to Free Street in a while, let Sur Lie be your next excuse for a relaxed, yet sophisticated meal at the bar, or a craft cocktail before a night out.
1 Free St., Portland | 207-956-7350 | sur-lie.com
HOURS: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday
AMENITIES: Host stand, very clean, nicely decorate bathrooms, coat hooks, bar/lounge is separate from main dining room
PARKING: On street
BOTTOM LINE: Located downtown, but away from the Old Port hubbub, Sur Lie is the ideal place for a quiet, sophisticated evening, a drink and a reasonably priced bite. While the ambiance leaves something to be desired, the service is excellent and the quality can’t be beat.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes