Restaurant Review: Steel & Rye in Milton

Chef Chris Parsons’s inventive techniques make for greatness at his new Milton restaurant—some of the time.

By | Boston Magazine |

Steel & Rye

Desert Island mussels with smoked tomato, chorizo, and sofrito lobster broth, $11 (Photos by Heath Robbins)

Big chefs with big reputations opening serious restaurants in the suburbs are big news. Or, at least, news. Outposts and second locations spring up, yes (mostly in malls and tony suburbs). But far-flung, ambitious kitchens where the chef cooks every night? Not so much.

Chris Parsons was one of the first to capitalize on the cost and captive-audience benefits of the ’burbs when in 2003 he opened Catch, in Winchester, and later reinvented the same space as the much-acclaimed Parsons Table, which closed in 2011. His goal then was to bring Catch to downtown Boston, but after fruitless negotiations, he split for Milton, where the leasing is easy.

In November, Parsons opened Steel & Rye, a 150-seat restaurant where the focus isn’t on seafood and the space is huge—a 7,000-square-foot former car showroom and ambulance garage. This is the happening Milton Village section, close to the Lower Mills neighborhood of Dorchester. The restaurant is ambitious, and fun, too: airy and loftlike, with big mullioned windows; rough-hewn, unfinished wood; and early-20th-century-style industrial gears and barn doors. There’s a large open kitchen and dining rooms on several levels, with many high-top tables and booths as well as traditional seating. The flow makes it all seem casual and easy, as if it had long been designed and divided this way. In scope, it’s far higher-style than the nearby 88 Wharf, and in general citification finds a suburban parallel only at Jamie Mammano’s L’Andana, that temple to Tuscany located in a cavernous former golf-supply store in Burlington. But L’Andana is a mere outpost for a chef with a slew of restaurants. Parsons mans his stove every night.

In its plain, welcoming feel (no tablecloths; red-flowered, diner-style crockery), Steel & Rye is reminiscent of Parsons’s last restaurant—which I and many city dwellers fell in love with for its unfussy, seafood-focused American menu that was secretly the product of great skill and sophistication. Parsons, who grew up fishing on Cape Cod and trained at Johnson & Wales, has an interest in cutting-edge technical feats—he even competed in the Bocuse d’Or two years ago, though he lost in eliminations. But showmanship has never been an overt part of his style. So while he’s kitted out the huge kitchen at Steel & Rye with the newest CVap steam oven, a Rational steamer/convection oven, and a massive Molteni cooking suite, he’s using the snazzy gear in mostly subtle ways, to enhance garnishes and underlying ingredients rather than disguise what he’s cooking.

I happily followed Parsons to Milton. But sadly, I found that he’s blown out his menu along with his space. There are four printed sections before you even reach the entrées. Maybe as insurance against empty tables, he’s trying for bar food, seafood, and steakhouse- and family-style fare all at the same time. Often, fairly complicated preparations don’t pay off in dishes with otherwise unified or memorable flavors. But when Parsons does focus his talents, he creates things that are so good, so at once complex and homey, that you want him to pull back, cut the menu in half, and prepare it all the same way.

Making the case for keeping things simple are dishes from the small-plates section. One comes straight off the Catch and Parsons Table menus: salt-roasted Maine clams ($11), baked and stuffed with garlicky bread crumbs featuring chewy little nuggets of air-dried chorizo. The clams were warm yet tender, a sign that Parsons still knows what he’s doing with his bounty from the deep. Further evidence was the oyster stew ($12), a creamy soup enhanced by the addition of potatoes, bacon, and house-smoked hake. Homemade chive biscuits and droplets of parsley oil elevated the dish well beyond a standard chowder. Mussels in a sofrito-based lobster broth ($11), meanwhile, were sharply saline, with an added peppery kick from chorizo. Chicken-liver crostini ($5), from the “Snacks” section, was another standout, with a butter-rich, silken texture that was more like a mousse than a rustic chopped liver. (The toasted bread alongside tasted of butane fumes, however, a problem with a number of grilled items.)

Steel & Rye

Chicken-liver crostini, $5

Steel & Rye

Colorado-lamb meatballs, $12

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.

Steel & Rye

Pear tart, $9

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.

Steel & Rye

Steel & Rye’s sprawling dining space features an open kitchen.

Other Menu Highlights:
Swordfish, $27
Broccoli casserole, $18

95 Eliot St., Milton, 617-690-2787,


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.

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