Wednesday, 23 July 2014

100 Days of Awesome: Day 59 - Restaurant Review - Dining Solo at Steam, Rye

Most of the reasons my day was awesome were work-related, including scoring both a sleep-in and a hot chocolate paid for by my company, all because I had to catch up with a member of the public and sort out an issue. Sometimes the community aspect of my job drives me nuts, but yesterday was not one of those days!
Because of the meeting I didn't get to work until about 10:30, which you'd normally think was awesome, except it meant that I got a heck of a lot less work done. D'oh! Yep, looks like these last few productive weeks have gotten me a bit hooked on the rush of getting stuff done.
Haha, yeah, that's pretty sad isn't it...
Anyway, I decided to spend the night at Rye (because I have to be there before 7am on Wednesday mornings, and the early starts have been wearing a bit thin). It's awesome that my company will pay for my accomodation, even though technically they don't have to.
So I did a bit of Googling to figure out what I was going to do for dinner, and landed upon Steam, which is on the main street of Rye. I'm pretty much a fan of anywhere that puts their menu on their website and enables my menu stalking habit, so they were off to a good start.
The menu looked pretty magnificent, and is very much set up for sharing with a friend or a group. As such, it seemed a bit lacking for the solo diner with just four items in the "individual small plates" section, with a further three items available in "entrees" which again, are probably more for sharing - I mean, who wants to plough through a whole plate of edamame on their own?? I imagine I would not have noticed that if I wasn't dining alone, but I did find the menu choices to be a bit restrictive.
It was a quiet Tuesday night, so service was perhaps not as snappy as it otherwise may have been. I had a nice Canadian girl for my waitress, and although she was friendly she did place my order incorrectly, so I ended up with two rice paper rolls and one sang choi bao rather than the other way around, which she had personally recommended. Le sigh. But she was appropriately apologetic about it.
There was a second waiter, who did a good job of picking up the slack when my primary waitress was otherwise occupied. The style of service was friendly and fairly casual, and they made me feel welcomed. The second waiter in particular seemed to be quite experienced and professional, or at least confident, which was good.
I ordered the Tom Kha Gai, Rice Paper Rolls, and Duck and Shitake San Choi Bao (so, I effectively experienced 75% of the solo menu, and wasn't full afterwards). For a drink I had the White Peony Tea (I had intended to have a Lychee and Ginger cocktail, but they were out of the ginger element), and, because I wasn't quite full, I tried the Indonesian Black Rice Pudding for dessert.
The trouble, when you fancy yourself as a decent home cook, and have travelled fairly extensively, is that, if the flavours and textures aren't spot-on, you can get a bit more finnicky about your food than your Average Joe might be. I'm the girl that sits and watches Master Chef or My Kitchen Rules, and yells "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!!!" and "I can do it better! *rolls eyes*" at the TV. So I'm just putting that out there, to provide a bit of context to the review which others nay find to be unfair.
You could tell from the prices that the servings were going to be quite modest, kind of like an assortment of entrees, and The Tom Kha Gai was no exception. It came in a small bowl (cup??) that probably only held about 150-200mL. It was thick with coconut milk, and had a few slices of mild chilli, some bean shoots, half a cherry tomato and a prawn swimming in it. The menu says it is flavoured with lemongrass and galangal, but I have to say that the coconut flavour definitely dominated the soup. I recall from when I made this very dish in a cooking class in Thailand that the flavours were far stronger, so I was a little disappointed.
The Tom Kha Gai was pleasant enough, but not quite what I had expected. My expectations of the soup were obviously unfairly raised by a) my experience in Thailand, and b) the amount of time I've spent with The Kiwi in Asian restaurants on Victoria Street lately, where both quantity and quality are king, and at a very reasonable price, too. But none of that changes the fact that I wasn't especially impressed by the temperature, quantity or strength of flavour. The prawn was pretty nice, though, and I'm not a big prawn person.
The Rice Paper Rolls... errr, so I heard a rumour that there were prawns and pork in them...?? To be honest, I mistook what I now realise was the pork for some kind of roasted chicken, kind of like that dodgy chicken you get in the chicken and avocado sushi rolls they make in shopping centre food courts, and didn't really notice the prawn or remember it was supposed to be there until I was half way through the second roll.
As it turns out, the prawnts were butterflied and hiding along one side, and were rolled up with an abundance of rice vermicelli, a couple of leaves of Vietnamese mint, and I think there may have been just a skerrick of grated carrot and maybe a beanshoot or two, although the fact I don't clearly recall indicates that they obviously weren't the star of the show. There was a stalk of coriander and a wedge of lime on the plate, but no coriander actually inside the roll. I ended up picking off a coriander leaf and placing it on the roll for every bite of the second roll, just to add a bit of interest to it.
Look, I've never been to Vietnam, so I don't know for sure what an authentic rice paper roll tastes like. But I did just Google the heck out of it, and all the recipes for authentic rice paper rolls came up with more balance in terms of meat and vegetable content and were lighter on the rice vermicelli. This page explains the importance of balancing flavours and textures, and I more or less felt like I was eating noodles using my hand. Again, I know I'm biased because I don't even bother putting the noodles in my rice paper rolls - mine are all meat, bean shoots, veggies and herbs - but I've eaten a few rice paper rolls in my time, and none were that heavy on the noodles.
Lastly, I had the San Choi Bao. I always love the combination of a cool, crisp lettuce leaf with hot, flavoursome meat. And again, I enjoyed that aspect of it. I would probably order it again, although the water chestnut slices were still whole (in my experience they're normally chopped), the primary flavour of the meat was salt (not unpleasantly so, but I'm just saying that the flavours of the spices didn't really come through), and I would have been quite certain that the meat was a pork mince and not duck, had I not previously read the menu. I suppose I am just accustomed to my duck coming in whole pieces, and enjoying the texture and flavour, rather than having it all minced up. It kind of seems like a waste of duck.
I sat for a moment or two after finishing those three dishes, before deciding my hunger wasn't quite satiated. So I asked for the dessert menu, and chose the Indonesian black rice pudding, served with coconut milk ginger ice cream, on the basis that it would be served warm. (Note that, having eaten the meal, I think the coconut and ginger ice cream were actually supposed to be two separate entities, but the punctuation did not reflect that.) On a cold night like last night, having a warm dessert was important! The price of $13 indicated to me that it would certainly be bigger than the servings of the other foods I tried, and I was right. The generous portion came in a large, flat soup bowl, with warm, fragrant black rice piled in the middle of a sea of sweet coconut milk. A dome of what I had assumed was ginger ice cream was set in the centre, sprinkled with toasted, shaved coconut.
In general, the dessert pleased me. It filled me up, warmed me up, and the flavours were nice. I had two criticisms, however. The first criticism is that I'm pretty sure the dome of ginger ice cream was actually a dome of whipped double cream or maybe even Crème fraîche. It wasn't noticeably cold (nor did it melt), it wasn't gingery, and it was distinctly buttery to the point of over-richness, so I laid off on that after a couple of spoonfuls.
The second criticism is that the cardamom pods and star anise were still floating about in the rice, which meant that I found myself unexpectedly chewing on a strongly-flavoured cardomom pod serval times. I had learnt my lesson by the time I was about a third of the way through the dessert, and began thoughtfully probing each mouthful of rice with my tongue before biting down on it, to allow myself the opportunity to discard those little flavour bombs. You shouldn't really have to work for your rice pudding, and a graveyard of blackened, par-masticated cardamom pods atop your serviette is none too pleasant a site for other diners to behold, but nonetheless it was a nice dessert.
Overall my experience at Steam was fairly positive, despite finding the food to be barely above average. The quality of ingredients was excellent, but the execution of the dishes I ordered was not. I had a serious case of of food envy when the ladies at the adjacent table were served some amazing-looking food, to the point that my mouth watered and stomach grumbled just smelling what had been placed before them. Understandably, I was pretty bummed that, as a solo diner, those meals weren't really an option for me, and it would be good to see those dishes offered as a half-serve for the occasional lone wolf. I imagine that if you are in a group, and have the entire menu available to you, your dining experience would be a far more positive one than what I experienced.
Overall, I would probably return there, but certainly not alone.
I should also point out that the waitress let slip that the chef was "the new guy", which may account for several of the factors that I picked up in terms of the quality of the food, or the food not quite matching the description. And I won't know that unless I go back there. But I'd be interested to hear about the experiences of any readers, to see if they match my own.
Despite my grumbling, it was still a pretty decent meal, insofar as I live in a country where a little seaside town can support decent-quality restaurants in the off-season. My bill came in at $38, including two cups of white peony tea, and that's probably roughly what The Kiwi and I have been spending between us on almost twice as much food on Victoria Street (which obviously use lower-quality ingredients and have lower overheads, but which is far more authentic).
I would describe Steam as an upmarket Asian-inspired restaurant with potential, inspired rather than Asian itself, because it appears to be totally run by Anglos, at least, it does on a Tuesday night! Perhaps the meals have been altered to suit the local palate. Who knows. Like I said, I'd go back with a group but probably not alone. That said, having seen the serving size of the sharing plates, you could probably be a rebel and order just one for yourself and perhaps some rice. Just a thought.
So, did everyone have an awesome Tuesday?


  1. I learned a new word: skerrick!

    I love how much you love food. Usually I'm all Hungry! Nom nom nom. Wait, did that have flavor? Oh, well!

    White peony tea sounds wonderful!

    1. It's funny, because skerrick a word that has been in my vocabulary for as long as I recall, so I kind of took it for granted... but apparently its use is fairly well confined to Australia and England. Makes sense, I guess - Aussie dad, English mum.

      Haha, I do the Hungry! Nom nom nom too (I did it with some friends last night, in fact)... but usually not when I'm eating alone. I figured that, given I was bored, I may as well pay attention to what I was eating, purely for the sense of entertainment!


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