Restaurant Review: Steel & Rye in Milton
Chef Chris Parsons’s inventive techniques make for greatness at his new Milton restaurant—some of the time.
Other first courses only tease at the sophisticated-homey balance Parsons is uniquely capable of striking. Ham salad ($5, a “snack”) is made in a multi-day process similar to the one for a French aspic. It involves brining and then slowly braising pork butt and shoulder, shredding the meat and adding Dijon mustard, clarifying the braising liquid, and gelling that for a cap above the meat, which is then packed into a jar and topped with fleur de sel. After all that work, it tasted of little besides the salt and was unspreadably hard for the homemade pumpernickel rounds it was served with. The duck-pastrami tartine ($8, another snack) is the result of a bright idea that had dim results: Instead of conventional pastrami, the plate featured tough slices of duck breast, pastrami-spice-cured and served with julienned celery root in a gloppy rémoulade, all over thick rectangles of stale-tasting rye bread.
Two first courses come a little closer to balanced. An appetizer of sauced Colorado-lamb meatballs ($12) had nice heat from house-made harissa and delicate espelette pepper, but the meatballs were mealy and a bit rubbery. It was the tomato sauce, with a light kick of pepper and spice, a soft-poached egg, pine nuts, and dabs of Greek yogurt, that made this a satisfying near winner. On the “From the Gristmill” section of the menu, polenta with labor-intensive homemade ragu and heirloom Anson Mills cornmeal ($9 for a small portion, $16 for a large) should have had more flavor than it did: The ragu needed to offset the bland milkiness of the polenta but didn’t, perhaps because there wasn’t enough of it.
Main courses are where the laborious techniques have the most uneven payoff. Atlantic salmon ($24) is brined and dusted with burnt and powdered applewood cinders, then cooked sous-vide and served over red peas with smoked Maine shrimp and cakes of broken Carolina rice. The salmon was soft and bland, the peas soft and salty, the shrimp lost altogether. The double-cut pork chop ($26) is also cooked sous-vide, then deep-fried and spread with whole-grain mustard. The meat was fine but dry, the accompanying fried croutons with guanciale more a crunchy curiosity than a complement.
But then Parsons will make a main course that, like the oyster stew or the clams, is excellent in every detail. The swordfish ($27) is just as complicated a preparation as any of the mains. The fish is poached in olive oil, then grilled and layered with a purée of carrots and red lentils simmered in milk; multicolored baby carrots; Jerusalem artichokes that are steamed and then fried; and spinach sautéed with shallots and cabernet-vinegar-soaked golden raisins. This time, everything was integrated with a careful, successful contrast of color and texture.
And then there was my favorite: broccoli casserole with wild mushrooms, Comté cheese, and homemade Ritz crackers ($18), Parsons’s take on his mother’s Campbell’s-soup casserole but remade semi-haute. It was creamy, upgraded comfort food that was so basic and rich, I wished my own mother had made the original, so I could come back and savor this radical upgrade.
That’s what Parsons does at his best: makes food that tastes like the home you never had. (Many of the desserts held that promise, but with the exception of a pear tart with an expertly thin crust, $9, the results were often over-fancified and unmemorable.) Loyalists awaiting word of a Parsons resurgence will undoubtedly drive over from Winchester, Arlington, Boston, and beyond. But now that this talented chef has ample room to play, he’ll need to narrow his sights and re-employ some of his earlier restraint to collect legions of new admirers.
Other Menu Highlights:
Broccoli casserole, $18
95 Eliot St., Milton, 617-690-2787, steelandrye.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.