Yes here is another tapas-style restaurant in our midst, but Sur-Lie offers a distinctive take on the genre in a thoroughly likable setting in downtown Portland.
If you asked me to define Portland’s dining scene, I would say this: Right now, the town is enamored with small-plate dining—the dishettes of tapas-style menus flitting across the addled vernacular of American-bistro cooking.
Tony Alviar, co-owner of the newly opened and very engaging Sur-Lie in downtown Portland, describes the plates of his-tapas-style restaurant as “sharables.”
Yet again we, as sophisticated diners, are called upon to devise our own menu from a disparate list of dishes in the name of dinner as though we’re meant to hone our skills in the art of eating. I’ve said many times that I have mixed feelings about chefs’ tasting menus (too much food over too long a period) or the copiousness of small plates that seem to arrive all at once at the table without rhyme or reason.
Yet who can complain about a marvelous meal at Hugo’s, Eventide, Central Provisions, Lolita or Miyake—five superb dining constellations that loosely follow the small-plate format? Is Sur-Lie qualified to join this exalted list?
After three visits during opening week—too soon for anything more than an overview—I can say it’s an extremely likable place with well-prepared food. The bar, where you can dine and enjoy craft cocktails, has tremendous energy as directed by its good-looking crew of bartenders: big Sam Babcock, a Samson lookalike donning his signature custom-made leather apron, and Mike Gatlin, formerly a New York restaurateur, who sports plaid shirts and a shagged pony tail.
On my first night there with friends, we were definitely far from the madding crowd. We had reserved a table in the dining room. But after a few drinks at the bar we decided to have our meal there. From serial foodies hoping to break bread with the next superstar chef to the usual hipster crew of culinary night-crawlers, it seemed like one big party. Impressive too was how well the kitchen kept pace feeding this throng of diners.
In comparison to the energy of the stylish bar, the dining room is lower key. With tables along the peripheral walls and in the middle of the room, it’s flanked by the open kitchen in the rear. The kitchen doesn’t blend in with the dining room as at Central Provisions, Hugo’s or Lolita, where it’s more like theater in the round.
The food is much simpler (and less expensive) than the splendid haute fare of Hugo’s. Neither is Sur-Lie trying to be the next Central Provisions. The setting is much more casual – as is the food.
Sur-Lie is helmed by chef Emil Rivera, who is still an unknown to Portland diners, as we are to him. He hails from Washington, DC, where he worked for 15 years at the Think Food Group, a conglomerate of trendy restaurants across the country.
Originally he’s from Puerto Rico. So what brought him to Maine? Love and marriage to a Brunswick, Maine lady.
Sur-Lie most resembles Lolita, in spirit and range of dishes, though Sur-Lie’s menu does not have Lolita’s Mediterranean bias. Instead there are hints of Rivera’s Latin roots in his cooking.
You can start with local cheese or head right to the rillettes of rabbit, a wonderfully prepared pate under a scrim of lardo that moistens the rich, gamey rabbit. The torchon of foie gras is another good dish, luxuriously smooth and buttery.
Don’t miss the cream of corn, either. It’s simply described on the menu as sweet corn, buttermilk biscuits and mushrooms. It’s really a corn soup of the richest broth enriched with cream poured over sautéed corn kernels, mushrooms and biscuit cubes. Add the extra element of head-on shrimp or pork belly and it’s a splendid dish.
Lighter offerings like the panzanella or endive salads are well done. The latter mixes grapes, with blue cheese and walnuts in a mustardy vinaigrette. And the tomato-bread salad laced with creamy burrata featured excellent heirloom varieties still sweet and juicy so late in the season.
Several dishes didn’t fare as well. The egg and tian was a muddle of mixed vegetables in a tomato sauce pooled with an egg on top. And another dish called BBQ ‘shrooms looked good as a mingling of oyster mushrooms and cubes of corn bread; unfortunately its dousing of barbecue sauce was cloyingly sweet.
But the escabeche of mussels was a delicate, thoughtful interpretation showing Rivera’s Latin touch. Mussels are out of the shell, sweetened with honey and a crackle of pork rinds. He said to me later it’s an old family recipe and more of that style of cooking will show up on the menu.
After several weekend meals I stopped in for dessert Wednesday night. At 9 p.m. the dining room was half full, but the bar was hopping with 20-somethings enjoying their cocktails, wine and the economy of sharable small plates. I went for the “deconstructed” carrot cake: a small wedge of spice cake topped with an apple gelato, a spread of sweetened cream cheese and candied carrots and pecans. It satisfied my sweet quotient well.
It was then that t I began to understand what makes Sur-Lie tick. The restaurant’s name refers to the wine-making process of aging and fermentation. Well, after only a week, Sur-Lie feels like it already has that patina of age–staying power in the makings of a downtown neighborhood restaurant.
As the restaurant matures so will its menu. Just introduced this week, for example, are three large plates for parties of four or more to share: Boned striped bass with roasted cauliflower, kale and charred lemons ($36); pan-roasted chicken with fried zucchini, blistered tomatoes and tender leaf lettuce ($45) and a 24-ounce chuck roast ($48) cooked sous vide, with asparagus, local mushrooms and potatoes.
What more can you ask for? I’ll definitely be back!
Postscript — opening night: Open your contacts list to add yet another hot spot to your nightly peregrinations. The Bramhall (aka the old Bramhall Pub) opened Thursday night to a stellar crowd of first-nighters eager to make this their new neighborhood haunt. Serving beers, booze, pub food and good old cheer, this was the place to be last night — at least to get the lay of the land.