Steuben’s is my Jerry Maguire: I love it for the neighborhood place it almost is. And I’m rooting for every inch of the little bit of room it has to improve.
It fits much of my criteria for a neighborhood place to a T—a capital T in some adorably funky font, no less, like Square Meal Hearty. With décor that puts a streamlined spin on the urban diner circa 1962—from the coffee-and-cream color scheme of the upholstery and floor tiles to the retro barware on display—it’s got the stylishly cozy vibe down pat. It’s got the stylishly cozy menu, too, a compendium of red-blooded, blue plate special–style neo-comfort food.
And more often than not, its substance is in league with its style. If it were even more often than not, Steuben’s would have me at hello every other day. As it is, it’s the waitstaff more than the kitchen crew who… completes…me.
Abra in particular (nickname Cadabra, natch) works the bar with verve and grace. Without ever obviously aiming to ingratiate herself (sticking to flashes of recognition rather than overbearing gestures of friendship), she almost always goes, in some subtle little way, above and beyond the call of duty (see: stylishly cozy service)—serving up brunchtime prosecco in a nifty cyclindrical flute for the price of a mimosa, say, or appearing with a free dessert when she finds she’s got one extra on her hands.
Like this strawberry bread pudding.
No soft block of sugared egg, this really puts the bread in bread pudding—the crumb, the crust, the chew and all; in fact, it’s not so much pudding as jumbled French toast. Studded with strawberries and sided by vanilla ice cream, it was exactly what we didn’t need after a heavy meal…which is why it was exactly what we didn’t, but Abra did, know we had to have.
Said meal began with what’s listed on the menu, somewhat misleadingly, as “fried cheese.” To me, that ideally implies hunks of quality mozzarella, crusted as gently as possible, fried to a crisp, and served with a fresh, chunky herbed marinara. What arrived instead were more like crumb-coated, deep-fried grilled-cheese sandwich-sticks.
In concept, it’s a charming twist on the original; in execution, the bread really puts the squeeze on the cheese, which now may as well be a parsley sprig for all it contributes to the whole.
Still, I managed to swallow my slight disappointment along with my share of the dish. The same went for a Caesar whose croutons were likely prepackaged; as I’ve mentioned (and as I’ll further explain in a future post), a Caesar is one of the most important tests I administer to any kitchen. Steuben’s gets maybe a C+ for its half-efforts.
On the other hand, a veritable passel of fried chicken far surpassed my expectations.
My other half let his other half polish off rather more than her share of four super-juicy pieces of poultry (IIRC, a wing, a breast and 2 legs), breaded for crunch and glisteningly, not drippingly, fried. The gravy, too, was a judicious goo, unctuous and salty and thick but not jellied.
As for washing it all down, Steuben’s is home to no oenophiles’ trove; pickings are slim. But then, anything more complex than a grape juice like the cheap house red would be wasted on tastebuds in such a down-and-dirty mood as the food here’s sure to put them in.