The lovely ladies I dine out with convened upon the site of the late, lamented Murray Street Kitchen this week to try out its successor in the space, French bistro Sur-Lie. The name means "on the lees," a method of making wine that allows the liquid to age on the leftover yeast particles from the winemaking process. This adds flavour and texture to the finished wine. So my first impression is that this is a place that takes its wine seriously.
Unfortunately, I'd had a migraine the night before and didn't feel up to indulging in any vino myself, but my compatriots did: in fact, several of them ordered flights, which here are four three-ounce pours of wines around some sort of theme "VQA, "light and lively," etc.). I found both the number of glasses and the fact that both red and whites were included in most flights unusual, but certainly not outrageous. Ontario wines were well-repped alongside selections from France, Spain, South Africa and Italy. All wines are available by the glass (3 or 5 ounce) or the bottle, a deeply welcome idea that I wish all restaurants would adopt.
As for me, I asked for something interesting and non-alcoholic, and our kind waiter inquired about my sweet versus sour preferences, then brought me a delicious strawberry-cucumber lemonade concoction with a pretty garnish, no less. Another member of the group ordered a mint julep, which was served in a proper hammered metal mug and deeply enjoyed.
A few of us had apps, while others opted to save room for dessert. I overloaded on cake during the Thanksgiving weekend, so in lieu of sweets, I enjoyed the King crab salad "Lyonnaise." The traditional dish is frisée lettuce, a poached egg, bacon lardons, and vinaigrette. The frisée was accounted for (though underseasoned, the dressing lacking zing and zip), the egg was quail (tiny and cute!), the bacon in small crisp strips rather than chewy cubes, and to this was added a slice of brioche topped with King crab chunks dressed in a light herbed mayonnaise. Sort of a fancy crab roll, if you will. The crabmeat was fresh and sweet, but a bit overpowered by the mayo, and I would have preferred the brioche a bit more toasted for some crunch. I also felt the crab and bread didn't really mesh with the rest of the dish. Poach the crab in butter and sub it for the bacon, zing up the vinaigrette with some lemon or yuzu, and the whole thing might sing a bit more sweetly. But it was pretty and all the parts were fresh and well-treated.
I kept on with the sea theme for my main. I never try to resist a scallop, especially a diver scallop, guaranteed to be huge and sweet and meaty. I was not disappointed with the three perfect beauties that appeared on my plate, atop mounds of tasty and well-seasoned potato purée. The fourth mound was crowned with two slices of nicely crisped but still chewy pork belly, which when paired with the scallop is just heavenly. The beurre blanc (poured from a tiny jug) was nicely bright with acidity, which perked up the richness of the other elements. A few crisp fresh green beans and a spear of broccolini finished the plate. There was a swipe of something pink across the middle of the plate that I assume was the promised "sultana-rum glaze" but it was so scarce I couldn't really taste it. A little more of that might have elevated this dish from really good to great.
My friend across the table ordered the wild BC halibut and pronounced it to be the best-cooked piece of fish she's ever eaten, perfectly done and collapsing into succulent petals when touched. It was prettily crowned with a crisp nest of potato shards and surrounded by mussels and a saffron and leek sauce. It was my second choice and I was almost jealous.
Two of the three desserts showed up on our table: the chocolate orange was literally chocolate mousse frozen inside a scooped-out orange shell that had been candied. It was accompanied by brown butter financiers and clementine meringue. My neighbour said it didn't quite thrill her, though the bit of orange and chocolate I tried was excellent. (I admit the financier was dry, but that seems to be a feature, not a bug, with those.) My friend had the carrot cake, which looked like three half-cupcakes with dollops of carrot puree, swoops of brown butter frosting, and hazelnut ice cream. She cleaned her plate and sighed with happiness.
The decor has been adapted to fit the elegance of this food rather than the rip-roaring meatiness of Murray Street's menu. The brick wall's been painted grey, there's a new half-wall with nifty maze-like wood screening between the dining area and the bar. The soft globe lighting is a really nice addition. I found the leather chairs uncomfortable but I'm not sure if they're new or old.
I left satisfied, but somehow not totally wowed. This is fine French cooking, well-executed and well-priced, for the most part, but lacking something in the way of creativity, inspiration, verve. Nothing surprised me, and I like a little surprise. A little punch of unexpected flavour or texture was missing from each dish I tried. But it's a friendly and welcoming restaurant, and I think they should do very well with people in Ottawa looking for a classic, classy, upscale night out with friends or colleagues.