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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: April 24, 2015

The goodness that is Sur-Lie, Portland

Of our current crop of new restaurants, Sur-Lie is one of the best in town.

Written by: John Golden

Good restaurants strive to be at their best consistently. When they are, we diners are happy customers.  But when such a place goes beyond reasonable expectations and gets better and better with each visit—well, that’s cause for celebration.

That’s been my experience with Sur-Lie, which has easily joined the ranks of such fine small-plate establishments as Lolita and Central-Provisions. Over a period of months, each meal I’ve had has been as good if not better than the last. Not all restaurants in the city’s hierarchy of fine dining establishments achieve this. A few are more concerned with creating hype and buzz, of garnering culinary accolades and smirks groaning with sense of entitlement and holier than though posturing rather than just good cooking.  Please save the puffery for the magazine spreads.

That’s why I’ve begun to like Sur-Lie so much. From day one, co-owners Krista Cole and Tony Alviar, along with chef Emil Rivera, have displayed great style of manners and humility in their honest approach to bring utterly creative food to the fore.

On a rainy, chilly Monday evening this week, walking into Sur-Lie on such an inclement night was like entering a comfortable and welcoming safe harbor. The restaurant wasn’t crowded—after all, Monday’s are typically slow—but the bar, which had about a dozen diners, was one of the most inviting spots in the city.  Alviar was at his usual post at the front desk with warm greetings, and Sam Babcock, who is one of the best bartenders in town, tended to the  diners at the bar enjoying good food and drink.  It felt cozy and fine as though there was a big crackling fire in a stone fireplace at the end of the room.  When in fact it was Babcock’s towering presence and Alviar’s graciousness that made for such a welcoming scene.

At night Sur-Lie's bright lights liven up the otherwise quiet Free Street; inside the bar is warm and welcoming

At night Sur-Lie’s bright lights liven up the otherwise darkend Free Street; inside the bar is warm and welcoming

Their small-plates menu gets better and better. And this evening I started off with a perfectly made gimlet in a tall stem glass that went well with a starter of mussels escabeche. With its piquant mix of preserved lemon, pimiento and pork cracklings it was a sophisticated and refined starter.

A dish called carrots and peas is much more than just the sum of its parts.  Carrots are roasted and bathed in a cheese puree with softly buttered English peas as sweet as jujubes complimenting the crispy-crunchy carrots and brilliantly topped with a deep fried egg.  Mixed all together it had layers of complex flavor and texture that was so easy to like.

The final two plates were a poached chicken breast and a dish of baked mushrooms that showed off chef Rivera’s light touch. The chicken breast was cut in the French style gently napped in a lilting sauce of lemon and Parmesan with crispy kale adding just the right balance.  The dish of oyster mushrooms were bathed in a bracing aioli with a touch of jalapeno—both were gorgeously prepared dishes.

Beautifully prepared food, clockwise: mussels escabeche, peas and carrots, poached chicken and mushrooms

Beautifully prepared food, clockwise: mussels escabeche, peas and carrots, mushrooms and poached chicken

Everything was so good that I felt no need to end the meal with a final sweet, of which there are some tempting choices on the menu.  But one fact is certain.  Sur-Lie has hit its stride since it opened in October of last year.  Now it’s right up there with the best in town and should be indubitably on the top of your list to enjoy fine dining in Portland.

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