Steam & Rye’s website features pages and pages of photographs of Tarquins and Lotties drinking cocktails and having what looks like a bloody good time. Here’s Tarquin posing with the shark from Jaws. Here’s Lottie drinking out of a shoe.
It’s the brain-child of Mahiki owner Nick House and teenage boys’ favourite Kelly Brook. This makes sense – it’s essentially “Mahiki goes to Hollywood” with added cleavage. The Tarquins and Lotties are slightly older versions of the ones who frequent Mahiki, after they’ve stopped necking Jägerbombs and got themselves jobs in the City.
The sprawling bar/restaurant opposite Leadenhall market is vaguely 1920s-themed but it appropriates any kind of kitsch American iconography it can get its hands on: Wild West, The Great Gatsby, the American civil war, Hollywood, etcetera, etcetera.
It’s not the kind of place I tend to review – it’s more bar-with-food than restaurant-with-bar and I’d already turned down an invitation to the launch of its mechanical bull, a taxidermied bovine Frankenstein shipped over from Idaho. But it’s close to our office and it was pouring with rain.
You enter into what was once the trading floor of the Bank of New York and if you go at the weekend I’m told go-go dancers gyrate above the bar while Tarquin and Lottie get down and dirty on the dance floor. On a wet Wednesday in February there were no dancers and Tarquin and Lottie had been replaced by what looked like a bunch of middle-aged middle managers from Boots.
Opposite the bar is a line of banquettes made to look like railway cars, with screens playing videos of rolling American landscapes (Mahiki does something similar, only with swaying palm trees). This is fine if you’re sitting on the banquettes, but I could see them flickering in the corner of my vision, inducing a kind of motion sickness.
I’d heard the cocktails were good, but to order one you have to negotiate a complicated, two-part sliding menu. I gave up and left it to the waitress. We ended up with something served in an ice bucket that tasted like the squash I used to get at Sunday school, and something else that came in a plastic tub with popcorn floating in it, which reminded me of those cans of piña colada you get in Marks & Spencer (note: soggy popcorn, apart from sounding like a game you might have played in your public school days, doesn’t taste very nice).
On to the food: first up was barbecue ribs, which would have been nice had they not been smothered in a tangy, viscous sauce – the kind of thing the IRA might employ just before they chucked a bag of feathers over you. They lingered on the taste buds long after they’d left the table. In contrast, the crab-cakes tasted of nothing, only fishier, like brine-soaked cotton-wool.
The rib eye steak, though, was a fine hunk of cow, pink and fatty and delicious. The Canadian lobster with spring onion and ginger butter was decent, too. Neither are things you can really mess up if you have half a clue about what you’re doing, but credit where it’s due. We finished off with a brownie, which was fine.
Would I go back? No. One colleague nailed it when he described Steam & Rye as “TGI Friday for *****”. But after the plates had been cleared, I ordered some champagne, then some tequila, and then some more tequila. And when I was good and drunk, it didn’t seem half as bad. The staff were lovely and even the naff music started to seem alright. Sure, it’s a temple to bad taste, untouched by the frosty fingers of urbanity or decorum. But once you hit that sweet-spot of intoxication, it doesn’t really matter. Everything’s fine. Are you sure the mechanical bull isn’t working? Send another of those ice bucket things my way.
By kicking out time, even the middle managers had pulled.
First published in City A.M.