Steel is the super-hard result of a hellish fusion of iron with carbon. It's a curious name for a restaurant that seeks to stand out from the crowd of "Asian fusion" offerings popping up like Rogaine fuzz across the Dallas area. But then again, the name wasn't selected to serve as a symbolic representation of the cuisine, which centers on Japanese and Vietnamese with traces of other influences. It was named after the imposing doors that mark the entrance, steel apertures crafted by Dallas artisan Gary Delarios, whose work so impressed Steel owner Khanh Dao (former managing partner of Voltaire) that she decided to name the restaurant after the metal.
The substance is minimally applied throughout the restaurant. Flatware is swaddled in black napkins bound with steel hose clamps. A pillar separating the bar from the dining room is armored in glistening sheets of steel, as are the walls in the rest rooms.
Yet despite the chilling rigidity cast by the moniker, Steel is surprisingly warm in its contemporary edginess. Uncountable board feet of mahogany and Brazilian cherry embellish the walls and floors. Halogen spots suspended from the ceiling cast luminous discs on the oversized wooden tables, a touch Khanh hoped would create the aura of a Broadway stage. It does, although reading the menu becomes a little difficult when servers stand in the beam of your spotlight.
Still, Steel teases orthodoxy. The 30-foot granite-topped sushi bar, for instance, is much higher than a conventional sushi bar. Plus, there are no display cases. All of the flesh is concealed. "I personally never liked those," Khanh says. "I didn't want people to have to stare at a market storefront of fish." She adds that the temperature of the sushi in her system stays more consistent because it isn't constantly moved from refrigerator to display case.
With muslin curtains separating the bar from the dining room and fresh flowers throughout, Steel isn't just warm; it's downright sultry.
Which is what Asian food can be more times than not. With its de-emphasis on bulk and fat and a tight focus on potent aromas, flavors and fleshy reverb, Asian food can be the most arousing cuisine on the globe.
Almost anything from the Steel menu can be considered as such, but perhaps the Vietnamese beef carpaccio, a dish that is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and is often accompanied by cognac, illustrates this most effectively. Visually, it is an arresting thing: a narrow platter heaped with flesh and covered with shreds of mint, a Vietnamese herb called rau om, slivers of lemon peel, fried onion and chopped peanuts. Only the folded edges of the thin, succulent sheets of prime rib eye are visible from beneath this mound, like loins covered in a grass skirt. This delicate and astounding dish, flush with fragrance and alive with refreshing piquancy, is possibly the best carpaccio you'll ever have in Dallas.
The intriguing aspect of Steel is the breadth of its offerings, which range from the exotically sensuous to subtly sublime. At first bite, the deep-fried whole fish, a battered striped bass, tastes dismally bland, like it needs robust seasoning to escape the realm of papier-mâché. And it does come with sauce rendered from fish oil and pepper and such. Yet as more bites pass through the lips, the palate settles into the subtlety of the moist briny flesh with a trace of sweetness. It is then that the textural contrasts, between the crisp outer husk and the tender flesh, come into play. This clean simple fish can get a little addicting all on its own.
And like most things that are pleasantly addicting, this fish extracts a high price. This rather unimposing fish torso rings in at $41.95.
And this isn't the only piece of fish that seems to grab more than its weight in currency. The monkfish clay pot, a preparation that Khanh says is traditionally prepared in Vietnam with catfish or some other flaky whitefish, is little more than a bowl of sticky rice pocked with scallions upholding three modest monkfish fillets. The fillets have been treated with chili powder, salt, pepper, garlic and ginger and are then braised and caramelized, leaving flavors that are nearly as delicate as those of the fried fish but not nearly as compelling (the most forward flavors were garlic and ginger). Not that this dish was flawed, but it certainly didn't stand out. And at $25.95, one might expect a sensory experience that transcends the price.
Khanh defends the pricing, saying that Steel uses the best and freshest ingredients available to choreograph each menu selection. But generally, diners want to experience the reasons for that expense more directly, and in a few of these pricier dishes, it just doesn't come through.
Perhaps it all evens out in the end. At $17.95, the salt and chili-pepper calamari sounds expensive. It is, but when you consider that this dish comes within sniffing range of perfect-moment status, the price begins to lose its imposing posture. This handful of blond squid was perfectly seasoned, void of grease and a thrill to eat, even if you choose not to dip it into one of the sauces provided, each some variation on chili peppers.
The traditional Vietnamese "shaken" beef followed this same vein, and its somewhat steep price of $24.95 didn't elicit the slightest winces once it was delivered. A generous heap of sautéed tenderloin cubes is seeded on an array of lettuce leaves surrounded by tomato wedges. The meat is mingled with scallions and sheened with a soy-based sauce with brown sugar and white wine. The beef was firm with full body and rich flavor.
To pull off this metallurgic strain of cuisine, Steel employs an army of chefs including an executive Japanese chef, an executive Indo-Chinese chef, a premier sous chef, a pair of master sushi chefs and a sushi chef. Together they launch an array of Asian dishes including sushi and sashimi, grilled Japanese dishes and "Indo-chine" selections including fire-pot soups, salads, and the clay pot dishes.
Steel sushi is cool, supple and delicious. Everything, from the tuna and octopus sashimi to the spicy tuna rolls and the uni, was at least as good as the best you can sample in Dallas, and in some cases (uni), better.
Steel prances on an exotic plane similar to the one occupied by Tei Tei Robata Bar. Some of the offerings and specials are unlike anything you may have seen before. Steel's grilled prawns slip into this category. A nearly barren plate is spread with the split halves of two huge Vietnamese blue prawns the size of truck mufflers. They looked like the thing that popped out of John Hurt's belly in the first Alien flick, which made it hard to approach them unarmed. Yet when you get close enough to taste them, the flavor is subtler than the prawns' looks. The meat is briny and firm, and the flavors came alive when dipped into ponzu-like sauce that accompanied the dish.
Even Steel's salads harbor little miracles. Chicken cabbage salad tasted better than you might expect from a head of cabbage sassed up with breast meat. Finely cut cabbage and mint is mixed with Vietnamese herbs, fried shallots, cilantro and ground peanuts doused with lime juice. The result is both delicious and refreshing, with crisp cabbage slivers and moist chicken strips kicked up a notch with some spice heat.
Steel doesn't have much for dessert, other than fruit and green-tea ice cream and bananas. Go for the bananas. The tempura banana is covered in batter and fried, creating a thing that looks like a form of sea life. Its crispy coating harbors a soft, gooey core, its sweetness concentrated a little from the heat.
Steel's wine list is tight with offerings from California and France to Germany to Australia and New Zealand. But while you can with some work match a wine decently with Asian fare, sometimes it's just better to sit back with a beer or sake and not put forth the effort. Especially since the house sake (served warm) has better, more complex flavors than can be found with most house sakes served at temperatures that could melt solder.
Steel is a compelling place with lots of unusual corners and twists. Just come well-armed with plastic and make sure the servers stay out of your spotlight beam.
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