Sunday, March 2, 2008
My family and I used to enjoy going to diners on the weekend, but boredom with the bland food had taken the sparkle off the experience. The same "eggies with toast" for the boys, with undercooked homefries. The same crusty-looking, flat omelette that lacks any semblance of fluff, accompanied by fat and tasteless fries. Diner food is usually reliable and filling, but there's not much that's creative about it. The coffee is generally dreadful. We would go to them mainly because they forgave the fries under the table and the smeary handprints atop it.
Steam Eat, a few-months-old restaurant right on Main Street in New Rochelle, offers all the advantages of a diner--but the food is much, much better. I am convinced that it's also cheaper. If you haven't noticed the place, that's because you're probably passing by in a fast clip in your car. It's easy enough to miss--nestled in the base of the condo development called Huguenot Hill, a couple of doors down from Super Suppers, Steam Eat advertises its presence with tasteful grey and white signs. Shaped like a miniature Flatiron, the space is cavernous enough to accommodate a slew of patrons and strollers--even the double and triple variety liberally studded with toddlers. A giant art print of a steaming cup of coffee adorns the wall, and the menus are displayed like a monument high above the counter.
If you have kids with you (and we always do), you get a selection of children's books to peruse along with your menus. (A nice alternative to the cheap, waxy crayons offered by diners.) Adults can scan the magazine rack for papers and newspapers. Our boys flipped through hardcover kids' pages while I read about abandoned babies in that shameful rag known as The New York Post.
For breakfast, we usually all order the Special Egg Sandwich--at $4.75, it's a Kaiser roll loaded with bacon cooked to crispy perfection, eggs, and cheese. Try it with eggs over medium and the cheddar instead of the Monterey Jack, and get their well-cooked homefries on the side--no bland, mealy potatoes here. Steam Eat serves Peet's Coffee, which is hearty and delicious. (Even a cup of Peet's tea kicked the pants of a Tazo tea of the same variety.) Sometimes I've strayed and sampled the Bagel Breakfast ($7.50, with a mound of fresh lox that reaches to your eyebrows), but the Special Egg is too tried-and-true to resist. Sometimes, now, I even wake up with that phrase on my lips: "Special Egg Sandwich."
Last weekend, the boys tried the oatmeal for breakfast, which comes with small pots of various mixers--raisins, caramelized apples, authentic maple syrup, cinnamon. They had fun mixing their items in and then spooning the oatmeal right down their shirtfronts. The waitress was not alarmed to see the smeary mess on the red banquettes, which alleviated our guilt.
For lunch, we've tried the Salmon BLT ($8.50, and delicious) and the Grilled Cheese ($3.25--a bargain!), both of which come with paprika-dusted tortilla chips instead of the traditional french fries. I was able to eat the latter while wildly ill with morning sickness, so it was a lifesaver. Also tasty was the House Roasted Turkey sandwich, complete with cranberry chutney ($7.75).
We often have the place almost to ourselves, which just doesn't seem right. Why isn't it packed yet? I have a couple of theories. For one, it opened in the back yard of a neighborhood where the residents--old, working-class families who have been installed here for 50-odd years--may regard it with a vague suspicion of gentrification. Goat cheese and wild mushrooms in an omelet? Humph! Newfangled yuppies! These people prefer their greasy diner food, thank you, and didn't you know that McDonalds serves up a fine cup of coffee?
Steam Eat has the flair and flavor that up-and-coming Brooklyn did when Smith Street started to get hot and prices on apartments shot up. It's cool enough to make it in SoHo. Its minimalist decor and high ceilings suggest an onrushing hipness that New Ro seems ever-ready to embrace...but not quite yet. I live in this neighborhood. It's not riddled with Bugaboo strollers and Volvos. Here, you are more likely to drive by a front porch featuring a fat Grandma sunk into an overstuffed couch, and two sallow youths playing Foosball. Steam Eat kind of sticks out ... just like that one, lone guy in a suit who walks out of our neighborhood toward the train station every morning. (Curtains peel back and suspicious eyes stare out.)
But at $7.75 a pop, any one of Steam Eat's so-called "fancy" omelets comes in at a lower price than the last scraggly, sorry spinach and feta omelet I ate at the Thruway Diner (soon to be demolished for a Walgreen's, which is pathetic and sad--but I won't miss the food.) The bottom line is that Steam Eat's food is excellent and the waitstaff helpful and pleasant. And I'll bet they'll even make you a plain old cheese 'n' egg omelet. Take that, y'old farts!
The second reason is that people--if they actually notice the place--may be scared off by the fact that there seems to be nowhere to park at first glance. Not the case. We usually park right on the street next to the front door, or barring that, in the free parking garage right inside the building. It's truly easy. If you're lucky enough to live in the Shangri-La that is our neighborhood, you can even walk! Once discovered, it's hard to pass up this hidden gem--and I'm afraid the Larchmont, Mamaroneck, Thruway (RIP), and Nautilus Diners have all lost our business for the duration.
Steam Eat is at 179 Main Street in New Rochelle, just across from Salesian High School and just North of the UPS store.