Monday, April 29, 2013

Steel & Rye Fuses Old and New with Mixed Results

The Industrial Revolution has returned to the suburbs of Milton. Not the actual Revolution, but in the form of Steel & Rye, a new fine dining restaurant houses in an innovative space that also serves up equally innovative cuisine rarely seen outside of Boston (although that trend is beginning to shift with the heralded arrivals o Newton’s Sycamore and Jeffrey Fournier’s Waban Kitchen.
Chef/owner Chris Parsons, the well-regarded head of former Winchester dining hotspots Catch and Parsons Table, has opened up a chic-looking eatery whose architecture pays tribute to the past. The sprawling 7,000 square foot space was once a car dealership turned ambulance garage. High ceilings make conversation a bit challenging, but bearable. There is also a more far-reaching nod towards the Industrial Revolution several hundred years prior in the form of old tools adorning windowsills, rusty beams cradling the bar, exposed pipes and ducts, steel beams with light bulbs burning bright overhead, and a concrete floor. But like many of the welders from that period, Steel & Rye manages to fuse the past with modern touches. Glass garage doors open to the patio, there’s a lively bar area, and there’s an open kitchen in which customers can view a multitude of chefs painstakingly preparing their meals. Diners consume their food on exposed wooden tables, and drink water from old-fashioned glass milk jars. The vast space is divided into different dining areas, and include fun touches including a table quaintly nestled into a window alcove at the front of the restaurant as well as a table in the back for two privately perched atop a spiral staircase. Despite the enormous space and crowds, Steel & Rye’s ambience is surprisingly warm and homey.

With mixed results, so does Parsons’s ambitious cuisine. Starters and small snacks are where Steel & Rye shines brightest. You’ll never invest a better $6 than with Today’s Cheese, which consists of homemade black pepper bread onto which sweet quince jam is spread and creamy Monk’s Head cheese is beautifully shaven into flower-like shapes. It’s a small delight that evokes silent nods of agreement at our table and will undoubtedly be placed alongside of some of Boston’s must-have dishes. A half dozen lamb meatballs ($12) are also pleasing, rich and silky due to an eclectic mix of runny poached egg, pine nuts, Greek yogurt, and whose flavor is further enhanced by a spicy kick of harissa (a North African chili paste).

Entrees are a mixed bag, but give Parsons his due – it’s not for lack of experimentation and innovation. On the positive side, homemade gemelli ($22) consists of tender pieces of braised lamb mixed with calamari-shaped pasta tubes that are perfectly cooked al dente. The pasta’s texture and flavor is enhanced by a masterstroke inclusion of breadcrumbs that soak up the sauce. East Coast halibut, which comes highly recommended by our server, shines in some areas, particularly the perfect execution of cooking the delicate white fish that instantly breaks apart at the gentlest touch of a fork (although a dining companion remarked that his was a bit dry). This dish, however, disappointingly falters in other areas that sounded much more intriguing on paper than how they appeared on the plate. A braised pork and hominy stew in which the halibut is cooked is less hearty than expected and surprisingly bland, while the hominy grits themselves are woefully undercooked and rendered inedible. Also barely discernable are accompanying grilled cactus and any hint of heat from gualjio chili.

Dessert, like the aforementioned halibut, delivers in some respects, but fails in others. While elements of the affogato such as frozen chocolate semifreddo and ultra-creamy vanilla gelato are quite delicious, their flavors are overwhelmed – drowned, actually – when decaf espresso is poured over the dish. While just a dash of espresso would have been preferred, there is an excessive amount of it here, which transforms the dish into a soupy, overly bitter-tasting mess. Housemade chocolate pop rocks add little, if any fizz to the plate, and ironically, a once-promising plate ultimately fizzles out.

Steel & Rye rebounds with its cocktails ($11), which are creative and well-balanced. Given the restaurant’s name, one would expect the bartenders to craft expert drinks containing rye, and the Bluster (comprised of whiskey, grapefruit, and pomegranate grenadine) delivers with its bittersweet, potent flavor. Also enticing is the Good Cuban, a bright, refreshing seasonal, citrusy cocktail with rum, lime, mint, bitters, and sparkling wine. There are also over a dozen modestly-priced wines available by the glass ($9-13), which include an inviting Cooper Hill Pinot Noir hailing from Wilamette Valley.

Service is understandably a bit slow on a bustling Saturday evening, and we appreciate our server routinely keeping our table informed of any delays. Thankfully, water glasses are constantly filled and delicious rye (sensing a theme here?) bread is constantly served with mouth-watering butter spread as we await the arrival of our courses. Our waitress is also extremely knowledgeable of the menu, patient, and enthusiastic (if not always spot-on) with her recommendations.

Prior to our departure, we notice a couple seated just behind us who arrived far later than us and are nearing the conclusion of their meal. I soon realize that they came only for starters, drinks, and dessert. And at the end of the day, that’s what I envision works best for Steel & Rye. Skip the less successful entrees and head straight to the more intriguing appetizers while washing them down with stiff libations. After all, the more (rye), as the saying goes, the merrier.

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