As a downtown bistro serving tapas style fare, Sur-Lie, which opened with a bang in October, has become a fine dining haven where both Portland’s glitterati and gastronomes happily convene.
The reason for my return visit to the thoroughly enticing Sur-Lie only several months after my First Look review in October was to experience their large-plate offerings. These were put on the menu after I had given my first assessment of the restaurant.
The way it worked was that several large-plate offerings – like a whole roast chicken or big cut of steak – would be served family style at the table to parties of three or more. Diners could enjoy a few of the small-plate dishes before going on to a sharable main course, setting the stage beyond the ephemera of schnibbles ‘n’ bits dining.
But these weren’t as popular with the Sur-Lie patrons who have jammed the place ever since it opened. There’s certainly an economy of scale to dine like this, especially amongst 20-somethings who want to eat well – but carefully – on limited budgets.
When we arrived earlier this week, I asked about the large-plate offerings and was told that they were no longer on the menu. But my query got back to Chef Emile Rivera and it turned out that the kitchen was happy to oblige. Kudos to them for being able to do this on the spot.
What ensued was a dinner of exquisite small plates followed by a show-stopper – a regally divine presentation of roast chicken, all carved, and served in a large pot, the glistening patina of its well-burnished skin looking like a work of culinary artistry. It was set in a luxurious oyster cream and held crisply sautéed kale and the most delicious little pile of smashed potatoes – crispy and creamy like starch-rich candies.
The small plates were no less dazzling and showed how the kitchen has matured since its early days into preparing beautifully made food that’s both restrained yet packed with complex flavors.
The three of us, good friends, happily dipped our spoons into a bowl of clam chowder. This was no ordinary riff on a New England staple. It held a light cream broth poured over a duo of smoky clams waiting in the shell with streaks of lardoons and flecks of parsley. When the waitress came by to clear what she thought was a done dish, we waved her back because we didn’t want to miss one drop of that splendid broth.
One fault that I find with the indulgence of tapas-style restaurants is that the kitchens tend to send out everything at once. That doesn’t happen at Sur-Lie and each successive small plate arrived to enjoy as a solo presentation rather than part of a smorgasbord.
Our next dish was a heavenly sweet-pea hummus served with crisps of lavash crackers. This too demanded our full attention to savor every last drop of the sweet nuances and velvety smooth texture of the puree, which was uploaded with an absolutely exquisite lemon sabayon that gorgeously gilded this exotic lily.
Our final small plate was pan seared scallops brilliantly placed on a cream of white sweet potatoes. The salty brine of the shellfish rested so deliciously on its sweet potato pool, making every bit an adventure in contrasts.
With every dish preceding the main course being so impressive, the eventual pot of chicken that came to table was hardly an anti-climax but, rather, the dénouement to an extraordinary meal.
We debated whether to have dessert and ultimately went with a dish of tamarind caramel ice cream made by the boutique ice cream maker Catbird Creamery in Westbrook. It was just right.
The restaurant was quiet at seven in the evening when we arrived this past Wednesday to snuggle comfortably into our booth by the window. The weather was cold, damp and altogether unpleasant outside. But those conditions didn’t stop a surge of night crawlers who started to fill the place by nine. And by the time we said our goodbyes to several friends also dining there, the bar and dining room was alit with the usual trendies who fill our restaurants in a second shift that takes place at many restaurants around town. I call it the Portland shuffle – the hipster circuit savoring the delights of The New Portland Cuisine. Late night at such places as Sur-Lie, Central Provisions, Eventide, Lolita, Boda, Pai Men, et al, or less benighted haunts like Bramhall or the Bearded Lady. But with so many good restaurants in town, Sur-Lie has matured and can stand on its own merits as a fine place to have a wonderful meal casually or with as much pomp as you like.