"Never settle" is a ballsy thing to have as the motto for your restaurant. And yet, there it is, blazed across the entrance mat outside the front door of Steel, the Asian-fusion restaurant that recently arrived in Midtown. The phrase is the first thing you see when you visit Steel's website, and it is even reiterated on a plasma screen as you enter the restaurant's bathrooms. At most eateries, you invariably end up settling for something. And at Steel you end up having to settle for quite a lot.
In Atlanta, we settle for less-than-stellar food in exchange for ultra-fancy digs, and Steel certainly has the decor to make the trade-off seem inevitable. Upon entering, you are greeted by a fountain that has multiple streams of water falling from the ceiling into a tiled pool that looks so bathlike you might have the urge to take a dip. Or take a pee – the streams of water had everyone in my party suddenly realizing they should visit the restroom. Beyond the impressive waterworks, the room is a slick combination of red lacquered tables, black accents, and dark and light wood.
This is the second incarnation of Steel, the first being in Dallas, Texas, where it is popular and well-reviewed. Atlanta's menu is a condensed version of the Dallas menu, with the influence extending from Japan to Korea to China to Vietnam to America. Thankfully, most of the entrees stay within their borders and stick to one country of influence, although there is some true fusion as well, right down to a side of wasabi mashed potatoes. There also is a large sushi selection.
If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is – in describing the restaurant to a friend, I called it "Geisha House part 16," although Bluepointe part 12 might have been more accurate. It's not nearly as silly as Atlantic Station's Geisha House, but the premise of trendy, highly designed Asian fusion is so overdone it seems almost retro.
Sushi is fresh and mostly pristine – some fish had a tad less firm-fleshed integrity than I would have liked, but the flavor was good. It should be, at $16 per order of yellowtail or red snapper sashimi. But the sushi and the appetizers are where I found the most pleasure on the menu here. Vietnamese beef tataki and Vietnamese beef tartar both won me over, especially the tartar. The raw beef mixed with peanuts, garlic and basil, topped with daikon radish sprouts, made for a heady, unexpected combination. Spears of fried calamari seemed lighter and less oily than the usual stuff, and a dark, sweet and spicy sesame dipping sauce was a nice touch.
But from there, the whirlwind journey through the Orient took a disappointing detour. Chilean sea bass marinated in soy and sake had all the buttery wonder of that Japanese-style preparation, but the fish seemed a tad too fishy. The accompanying asparagus actually seemed to enhance the fishiness rather than mitigate it. An entree of Korean beef, served with a Korean-style veggie pancake and house-made kim chee, had a deep, spicy flavor to the meat, and the kim chee held a lovely perfume whisper within its spicy, vinegary folds. But the pancake seemed too heavy with flour, and while I applaud the attempt to do an upscale Korean entree, it's hard to swallow the $24 price tag when there are real Korean restaurants in town that do this exact dish far better and for half the price.
Unfortunately, I was not able to sample the signature whole fried snapper. On the night I ordered it, the waitress informed me the only fish they had was a whopping 4 pounds, enough to feed a whole table of hungry fish eaters. I ordered the soy-braised pork instead, which offered delicious, tender piggy meat over sweet mashed yams – and which was almost inedible because it was so salty. I guess that's what I should expect from meat braised in soy sauce, but it was a frustrating dish to try to eat.
At lunch, the experience became almost hopeless. Bento boxes offered with a variety of options include a salad, California roll and an egg roll or crab and mango spring roll. I tried both the sea-salt chicken, which was dry and lifeless, and the tempura scallops, which were overplumped and almost soggy. A tofu and veggie hot pot had no tofu, and vegetables swimming in a tepid brown liquid.
There is one place Steel seems to have taken its "never settle" mantra seriously, and that is with service. The restaurant has not been super busy when I've been there, so I haven't seen servers under pressure, but I have seen them display professionalism, knowledge and warmth in such abundance that only thorough training can account for it. Floor managers also exhibit enough poise and grace to inspire confidence in both their staff and customers.
There is a decent wine list and sake list, but in both instances prices seem to jump quickly from budget to astronomical, with very little in between. Prices here in general are high – dinner for three with a glass of wine each and one shared dessert (silly chocolate sushi) came in at $250 after tip.
Atlanta may settle for high prices, and we may even settle for food that is hardly a revelation. But we've seen this concept before, and we've seen it done better. I'll be surprised if we settle for Steel in the long run.