Going out to dinner can take a lot of effort: finding a baby sitter, finding a parking spot, finding enough money in your wallet to pay for drinks and appetizers and dessert. So it’s nice when, in addition to serving good food, a restaurant goes out of its way to make diners feel taken care of.
On a bustling Saturday night at Steel & Rye in Milton, a valet magically appears beside our car as we search in vain for a spot in the full lot, and doesn’t charge us a cent. While we wait for a table in the crowded bar area, juggling cocktails and heavy jackets, a hostess comes over and asks if she can hang up our coats. Why yes, and thank you. Even small touches like complimentary sparkling water and delicious decaf coffee from Jamaica Plain’s Fazenda Coffee Roasters make us feel almost like guests, not just patrons.
The food makes us feel even more special. The buttery, melt-in-your-mouth foie gras, served in a tiny glass jar with sweet pear butter and salty brioche, is luxurious. But the menu is also down-home, with ham salad and broccoli casserole on offer — although this ham salad is more of a pate, served with discs of homemade pumpernickel. And the broccoli casserole is a wonder of complex flavors, with crunchy homemade crackers, thick stalks of broccoli, wild mushrooms, and soft blobs of Comte cheese, rounded out with crème freche, lemon juice, and mustard — not a hint of Campbell’s cream of mushroom in sight.
Chef Chris Parsons obviously knows his way around the kitchen. Parsons previously owned Catch and Parsons Table
in Winchester, where he lives, and he
re-creates several of those restaurants’ dishes: salt-roasted Maine clams, served in the shell with breadcrumbs, bits of chorizo, and an oregano mojo sauce, brought to meaty, briny bliss with a squeeze of seared lemon; and Mt. Desert Island mussels plumped with the flavors of smoked tomato and chorizo (Parsons is clearly a fan) in a decadent lobster broth.
The space in Lower Mills is stunning, a 7,000-square-foot former car dealership turned ambulance garage, with mile-high ceilings, exposed pipes and ducts, and glass garage doors that open onto the patio. Parsons and his co-owners — general manager Dan Kerrigan, the former GM of Chiara Bistro in Westwood, and financial partner Bill Scannell — made an effort to retain the building’s industrial feel, with old tools gracing the windowsills and a rusty I beam framing the bar, and yet somehow the restaurant still manages to feel warm and intimate. Red oriental rugs dot the concrete floor, and the cavernous room is broken up into different dining areas, a step down here, a table tucked into a window alcove there. Around the corner, diners can watch their meals being prepared at a counter ringing the open kitchen.
Parsons likes to get inventive, rounding out an appetizer of lamb meatballs with a squishy poached egg, pine nuts, Greek yogurt, and harissa, a North African chili paste flavored with coriander and caraway; a sprinkling of fresh mint leaves gives the dish a fresh kick. Green olives go into the deep fryer and come out of the kitchen riding a wave of prosciutto-laced cream cheese. Polenta dressed with a hearty beef ragu and creamy farmer’s cheese makes a welcome alternative to pasta.
And yet one of the menu’s simplest offerings — an uncomplicated-sounding $4 snack called Today’s Cheese — turns out to be a table favorite: homemade black pepper bread spread with quince jam and topped with delightfully stinky, creamy Swiss monk’s head cheese shaved into a delicate coral-like spiral. To die for.
Even the baby greens salad, with the earthy crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds and the subtle sweetness of dried sour cherries, cranberries, and apricots, is noteworthy. Sweet potato soup, however, dotted with rounds of sweet potato and homemade marshmallows, just kind of sits there, heavy and ho-hum.
The broccoli casserole is the lone vegetarian entree on the menu, but the pescatarians out there will be happy with deliciously fatty swordfish paired with a red lentil-carrot puree, barely cooked spinach, and roasted sunchokes, or slightly smoky Atlantic salmon, blackened with applewood ash, but still dark pink in the center, served alongside okra, red peas, and crispy discs of rice griddle cakes.
For meat eaters, there’s a 16-ounce rib eye, cooked to medium-rare perfection but requiring a bit of chewing, seared with a salsa verde of cured lemons and parsley and accompanied by meaty fingerling potatoes and smoked mushrooms in a potato puree. Lamb shank is falling-off-the-bone tender, swimming in rich juices that inundate balls of fregula pasta, Tuscan kale, and black trumpet mushrooms.
It’s tough to save room for dessert, but do it. The affogato, “drowned” in Italian, starts with frozen chocolate semifreddo and vanilla gelato, which is sprinkled with crumbles of amaretti cookies and homemade chocolate pop rocks — a fun idea, although the fizz is barely detectable — and finished off with a bitter kick of decaf espresso poured at the table. The oozy and not-too-sweet chocolate cake, however, is overpowered by salty peanut butter ice cream that not even crunchy nuggets of caramel corn can save.
The food is the star at Steel & Rye, but the decor is a close second. The hostess station is fashioned out of an old typeset cabinet and post office boxes. Sprigs of lavender in brown medicine bottles grace each table, and the serving dishes are an endless variety of bowls, plates, mason jars, cast-iron skillets, and crepe pans. There’s a shovel attached to a painting. The dining room is almost at the brink of being overdecorated, with the feel of a designer gone wild in an industrial supply store, but it’s fun to look at.
Rye is a specialty here, in tribute to the grist mill that once produced rye in the neighborhood, and the bartenders have a way with whiskey, from the fizzy Seelbach to the dangerously drinkable rye Manhattan, enlivened with eye-droppers full of bitters from tiny blue bottles lined up on the bar. There are a half dozen varieties of rye to choose from, along with several small-batch bourbons and an assortment of tequila, brandy, and scotch. The wine list is impressive, with several bottles well above $100; a nice array of offerings in the $30-$40 range keep it accessible. And the beer on tap also runs the gamut, from Notch Session pilsner to Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Steel & Rye is that kind of place. It’s distinctive yet casual, with empty nesters dressed up for date night sitting next to young couples with babies. The atmosphere is industrial but cozy, the cuisine creative and homey. Parsons describes his restaurant as the “yin and yang of agriculture and industry,” and he seems to have captured the best of both worlds.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.