Because we desperately need it, London’s got a new American restaurant. It’s adopted the same kind of approach to over-elaboration as TGI Friday’s, but that’s the last time we’ll speak about that place as Steam and Rye, on Leadenhall Street, is about as far away from that lovely little chain as you can possibly get.
Far away in the literal sense as well – there are no TGI’s in EC1 – the only red and white stripes around here are on Cityboys’ ties. A self-styled ‘late-night restaurant and party bar’ (whatever that is), Steam and Rye – somewhat aptly – sits within the grand old Bank of New York building, which brings me on to its first unique selling point – the room and decor. It’s distinct, but challenging to place the theme so I’ll cop out by saying that it’s kind of like stepping into a poshened-up Gangs of New York set, administered by a circus ringmaster. The real ringmasters though are co-owners Kelly Brook (say whaaat?) and bar-mental Nick House, who is responsible for the challengingly trendy Whisky Mist and Mahiki so maybe the ‘party bar’ branding might be justifiable. Brook was even there on opening night, giving it some tits and teeth.
Irregardless of whether or not this is where da pardee at, there’s no doubt you’re immersing yourself in Americana. Even their Twitter account’s masthead starts off with a totally non-stereotypical “Howdy folks!”. They may as well have called the place ‘Uncle Sam’s’. More accurately, you could say it was post-Colonial or mid-1800s (to 1920s) American (broad zeitgeist there), embracing thick red drapes, woodcut-style caricatures and Victorian verbiage. The menu embraces a font I believe is called Rockwell. There are numerous references to stateside clichés such as drinks named after United States presidents or semi-quoted from the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene in Pulp Fiction. Downstairs, you sit in Fifties-style diner booths, built for extreme comfort (I’ve never sat in a chair so soft). Upstairs, there’s a massive giraffe. Garish, but not quite Crap Taxidermy (thanks for that, Elle)
To really hammer in the message of “Amuricaaa, fuck yeah”, Brook and House couldn’t have chosen a grander room. It’s darn-tooting massive, and even with a bucking bronco (more like a sculpture, it’s seldom rideable) sat in the middle of the bar area, flags and god knows what else strewn about the place, Steam and Rye still feels empty and a little bit sullen. All this tat – though more tasteful and controlled than that at TGI Friday’s – feels swallowed by a room which, in my humble opinion, is wasted on this kind of restaurant, and should have been some kind of fine dining establishment.
That’s not to say that what’s here is not good. You pass through a red-lit reception, into the main room. To to right are the booths and straight ahead is the arbitrary rodeo horse. When we went, a pissed lady, dressed in a suit way too nice for her, was trying to shag it. To the left is a bar. And what a bar it is.
Similar to other American-style restaurants intent on screaming how unique they are, the main differentiator, proof-of-the-pudding and general indicator of awesomeness is the drinks list. Bubbledogs, MEATLiquor and The Big Easy are three examples. Serious drinking is important, especially when you’re serving the kind of food that could, in theory be sold from a van on the side of the A419.
Steam and Rye’s cocktail menu is exceptional. As you might expect, the theme is American, with more than a few nods to bourbon, molasses and so on, but unless you’re Kim Jong Un or anyone else with an unreasonable, pathological hatred of the States, you’re not going to be disappointed. It’s raucously quirky (one chocolaty, caramelly option is called the ‘Monica Lewinsky’) and everything is on point. I tried the unfortunately-named ‘Hoochy Mama’, built with Hendrick’s gin (the reason I ordered it), Grand Marnier, bourbon, rum, tequila, sherry mint and ‘hooch’, the latter being served in a small glass bottle and stuffed neck-first into the rest of the drink. It was bananas, and strong, and very well-balanced, especially as it ran the risk of simply relapsing into a fruitier version of a Long Island Iced Tea.
Just before we were ushered to our table, I noticed someone being served a drink in a clay pot shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s head, akin to a Star-Spangled tiki nightmare. I was directed to the ‘Rushmore’ section of the menu, and with my food, enjoyed a ‘George Washington’ (what is it with me drinking drinks called ‘George’ at the moment?), served in a pot likeness of the man himself. Needless and tacky, but let’s face it, I’m the kind of easily-led, charmed by pretty things persona that would go for something as O.T.T. as that, and I was smitten. The cocktail itself was made with bubblegum Don Julio tequila, Aperol, almond syrup, pineapple and lime. The marshmallow garnish made the evening, but this wasn’t the best drink to enjoy with a dirty burger. If you are normal, then grown-up drinks like the classic Sazerac, brunchy Snapper or the wonderful Julep are on the menu too.
To line the stomach, you have a menu full of reasonably priced American comfort food from steak (not more than £thirty, yay!), through to burgers, onto pulled pork and a foray into seafood, including whole Canadian lobsters. There’s more than a few sharing platters (this would be a great place for a birthday party or leaving do…) and on Mondays and Tuesdays it’s eat as much as you
can like nights, where shrimp and ribs will be brought to you until you scream mercy and hide under the table. For £sixteen, I challenge you to find a better way to culinarize yourself silly.
There are a couple of what I may dub ‘signature dishes’ which are, in comparison to the cost of most offerings, extortionate. The Steam and Rye Burger is one such plate, a towering mass of beef (cooked to your liking), bacon, cheese and pulled pork, served alongside lobster tail. It’s not as gimmicky as you may think; there was more than enough quality seafood and the burger was a stodgy, rich mess that obviously paired brilliantly with the bubblegummy George Washington, the combination making all thoughts of me missing Holby City disappearing into a smoky, fishy, medium rare beefy haze. The girls had a more normal burger and a chicken burger, both of which seemed similarly simple but well-made. And the best thing? This place does good fries. Did the food wow me? No. The burger market in town is over-saturated already. I didn’t need wow-ing though. I was drinking out of a president’s head.
What with a cracking bar, simple food and haphazardly sparse surroundings, Steam and Rye is a place of extremes and consequently lacks a certain amount of ‘flow’ and finesse. As the meal went on I certainly felt that it’s better suited to parties of thirty rather than three. Service is geared to bulk performance – alternating between being left alone for a little too long and then seemingly making up for it with brisk ordering (after a bizarrely lengthy wait at the bar, even though our table was clearly ready) and enthusiastic but late delivery of ketchup. First world problem, I know, but details count, and don’t get me started on that. I do details for a living.
Desserts looked appealing (a sharing sundae for three to six people, anyone?) but with ginormous mains we absconded. It was a school night, after all. Back at Carmines, I sat watching Holby, all needs satisfied, full, a little boozy and a much hyped restaurant ticked off the list. But that’s all it was. Steam and Rye joins a distinguished list of decent boozer-cum-burger-joints in London, places where the food is peanuts but the drinks make the bill as eye watering as the gooey patties. It’s heart is in the right place, but not amount of Rushmore clay pots or rodeo horses is enough in this little old town. At least not any more.
Starters £seven-ish, mains from £fifteen to £thirty, platters £forty to £fifty, cocktails £seven to £ten… Yippee ki yay, mother-flippers.
steamandrye.com | @steamandrye | 0207 444 9960 | 147 Leadenhall Street, London, EC3V 4QT