Sur Lie is the new venture for sommelier Neil Gowe and chef Nick Berolo. It’s found in the space where Murray Street Kitchen used to feed us (very well, and for nine years, thank you). Prior to MSK, it was Bistro 115. With Sur Lie, French cuisine has been restored, minus the pink walls and lace curtains.
It was the bitter end of December when Murray Street served its last supper. Sur Lie opened in early February, after what must have been a nutty five-week renovation. Gone the swine art, the mustard walls, the charcuterie bar. The team has installed bigger windows, painted the red brick white, erected a mod wooden screen between dining room and bar, and generally given the space a more contemporary feel, with shiny tile, globe lights that hover like full moons, and lots of polished wood for warmth.
I last saw this duo at Luxe Bistro, where Berolo was head chef for a time, and Gowe in charge of all things drink. Before that, the Cordon Bleu-trained Berolo was cooking in Montreal, and Gowe was co-owner of Izakaya on Elgin Street. And if I go way back, I first met Neil Gowe at Restaurant e18hteen. He was serving my table, circa (I want to say) 2003, and used his striking stature to reach way up and tweak a dark bulb in a (I want to say) 10-foot high ceiling, instantly flooding my dim table with light. The better to see the wine list (which Gowe would end up managing for e18hteen). I’ve never forgotten that party trick or the lanky fellow who pulled it off.
Naming a restaurant for a wine term suggests that wine will matter. (Sur lie is the French expression for a winemaking practice that has wine age ‘on its lees’ – in this case, the yeast cells left over from fermentation). Gowe’s list, at the moment, is 50-bottle strong, with a particular focus on Canada and France. There’s a good range of price options, and by-the-glass there’s enough breadth and versatility to pair with the food. It’s the sort of place where the tasting menu with wine pairings makes very good sense.
We went that sensible route for our first taste of Sur Lie. Beginning with Crémant de Bourgogne paired with PEI oysters. Always a fine way to start a meal. Particularly when the oysters come blanketed with flakes of foie gras (the torchon frozen, then microplaned) the rich balanced with bright pickled apple. Sea bream crudo next in a somewhat twee presentation – the raw fish with its mates of compressed cucumber, a bit of nori dust, shiny orange blobs of trout roe, emerald dribbles of dill oil and a petal of torched shallot came perched on the perimeter of a big plate – but luscious and beautifully balanced. Then a hot potato-leek soup poured tableside over a waiting bowl of treats. The centrepiece was a finger of frozen foie gras torchon, and around it, a brunoise of potato and caramelized apple, rings of roasted leek, a slur of parsley, and some mustard seed for pique. The log liquefied in the heat, oozing out its rich unctuous flavour. The Viognier from Pays D’oc was just the thing.
Rabbit next in a charming presentation, wherein a squash-filled raviolo capped a ‘stem’ of the loin, like a toadstool in the bunny’s forest. Pulled meat from the leg and some trumpet mushrooms shared that floor, set in an amber jus ringing a squash purée. The pomegranate seeds seemed a bit out of place, and I didn’t enjoy the fact the rabbit was wrapped in a ‘bark’ of seeds – mostly pumpkin, which I found too forceful a flavour and texture distraction. Besides, I cannot warm to granola with meat, though that is probably just my little problem.
Berolo is a whizz with reductions. If I could be allowed a shot glass of the jus that pooled beneath his venison loin, I would live a long and happy life. It was full of brawny depth with some muskiness from juniper berries, mounted with a knob of dark chocolate that gave it a silky, shimmery finish. The venison was good too, cooked sous vide, then seared off and sprinkled with a bit of crunchy salt. It sat in the very middle, protected with a moat of yummy things – logs of a well-spiced sweet potato flan, buttery-sweet Tokyo turnips, balls of compressed apple, a spoon of date purée, and a few roasted pecans. Very nice.
Dessert from pastry chef Gabriel Messier was a re-imagined raspberry shortcake, layered up with almond meringue, dark chocolate ganache and raspberry mousse. Around the cake were lime-flavoured marshmallows, lightly torched and sticky, an intense raspberry sorbet, frozen kisses of crème fraiche, a scattering of almond crumbs and a caramel powder that liquefied on the tongue.
One Sur Lie dinner began with a salad. Greens is grand condition dressed with a puckery lemon vinaigrette, threaded and crowned with root vegetables, some raw, some roasted, some as crackling chips. These came anchored with a pixie dust ‘soil’ of cardamom and coffee scented crumbs, which I quite liked and my friend did not. But she very much liked the next dish, caramelized scallops with cauliflower in four forms: as a mousse, a curried cauliflower foam yellowed with turmeric, as roasted florets and as crunchy raw chips, mandolin-sliced. Green apple lent a bit of juicy fruit balance.
The same (good) flax seed brittle from the bread basket that began the meal, appeared with the duck breast. I wasn’t taken with the meat – too much of a chew, and a bit stewed tasting, missing the fat layer and the burnished skin I love – though the bits around the meat, the parsnip purée, segments of mandarin, roasted beets and beet glaze – were delicious.
Final dessert was a deconstructed tarte Tatin, with soft apples on crisp buttery pastry, tonka bean ice cream, a cranberry mousse and sauce, and some sweet, chewy apple chips. I would have been just as happy, possibly happier, with the classic Tatin, but do admire the pastry chef’s creativity and each element spread over the plate is well done. They just taste better all muddled together.
At my visits Sur Lie has been spottily filled. Opening a restaurant in February, especially one located on a street that’s become a bit lonely in the good eating department (gone Domus, Navarra, and now Murray Street), has got to be tough. Come spring, the back patio will be in bloom, the Market bustling again, and this place, which deserves to be filled, will be. Sur Lie is a nice, grown up restaurant. They take your coat. You’ll be able to talk to your friend. Perch solo at the bar, be well fed and tended to. And when you leave your reading glasses on the table, a nice young man will chase you down the street to deliver them to you. So there’s that.
Sur Lie, 110 Murray Street, 613-562-7244,
Mains, $26 to $42, tasting menu (5 course) $80; wine pairings, add $35
Open Tuesday to Sunday for dinner (for now)