Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - April 12, 2013

Full steam ahead

Tai Pan owners bring casual modern Chinese to downtown Palo Alto

by Sheila Himmel

Jeannie Lee found a need and filled it with Steam, little-sister restaurant to her family's elegant Tai Pan in downtown Palo Alto. Now you can get dim sum, the Cantonese tea snacks, and a variety of modern Chinese dishes, in a chic, casual and cozy setting. Steam seats just 55 people.

In olden days, you had to go to Millbrae or San Francisco for dim sum, which was brought around on rolling carts but served only at certain times, usually weekend brunch. At Steam, you can watch flames leaping and chefs wielding giant woks at all hours. Steam's centerpiece is a gleaming stainless-steel open kitchen.

At Tai Pan, the entry is marble and the extensive menu features a full bar. Steam is progressive, with clean lines and long wood strips hanging from high ceilings. The only spot of color is a striking pink orchid. Except for the one long family table, blocky wood tables and chairs can easily be rearranged. The acoustics aren't great.

No matter. The food is very good and Steam is fun. They have actual servers, not the impersonal take-a-number system of so many chain restaurants pouring into Palo Alto.

Strictly authentic it is not. Nor as cheap as you'd find at one of the dim sum giants in Cupertino or San Jose. But listen: This is a Chinese restaurant that serves lattes. Don't go expecting shark-fin soup.

Dim sum dumplings are served in bamboo steamers on strips of steamed cabbage, to which they do not stick. Cooked to order, they don't sit around on carts and get gummy. Har gow (three for $3) were fresh and hot — a little too hot to eat right away — with shrimp peeking through translucent rice-paper skins. Fried shrimp balls (three for $3) were a little greasy, but not annoyingly so, crusted in shredded wonton skins. All were small, including scallop with seafood (two for $3) but sweet and fresh.

More innovative, spicy wine seafood noodle soup ($8) was chili-inflected but not too hot, with one green lip mussel, a scallop, some prawns, surimi and chunks of fish. Again, nothing was cooked to death.

A good-size portion, eggplant and minced chicken in clay pot ($10) had meltingly tender eggplant with chewy skins. Textures also hit the mark in sticky jasmine fried rice with chopped beef ($10).

There's beer, of course, and a good variety of wines by the glass ($6).

A couple of friends walked in as we were getting our first course. As we were seated at the family table with no neighbors, they were able to sit down with us and demonstrate how Steam works for vegetarians who eat fish.

There's a good mix of vegetables, and they aren't overcooked. The spinach dumplings (three for $3) had a nice mineral kick; sauteed broccoli ($8) was salted just enough and free of goopy sauce; and the only downside of the mu shu vegetable ($12) was an uneven number of pancakes for an even number of diners. Best of all, when one of them asked if the beef chow fun could be made vegetarian, the server "didn't look at me like I just came in from outer space."

However, service is far from seamless. There were a lot of servers, a lot of to-and-fro, but occasional gaps in delivery. Only the proprietor understood a question about gluten-free items, the answer being to special-order. Still, Steam is a breath of fresh air.

Steam

209 University Ave., Palo Alto

650-322-1888

Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: streets and city lots

Alcohol: wine and beer

Children: yes

Outdoor dining: yes

Party and banquet facilities: no

Takeout: yes

Catering: yes

Noise level: medium loud

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

Comments

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2013 at 12:16 pm


Walking down town this weekend we chanced to walk by the restaurant pretty close to the Stanford Theater. The one that used to be Andale's, which I miss terribly, and then was a sub-par mediterranean spot ... it is now Steam.

WOW, Steam is good! Not overly-gigantic portions, not the typical restaurant fare, seasoned perfectly, not greasy, not salty, it's like they really care about the food they are making.

I am recently vegetarian, but my girlfriend still eats some meat. We sampled some dishes the first night and then went back a second time the next day it was so good.

Vegetarian dishes at most restaurants are usually an afterthought and not good. The five crops fried rice was one of the best things I've eaten - it was really good. Not your normal fried rice at all, completely new and different, but tasty and filling.

I am looking forward to trying more dishes here.

I liked that Steam has reasonable prices for Palo Alto, and fresh wholesome ingredients, because sadly it seems that most restaurants seem to view their Palo Alto addresses as a license to steal - to charge more for less, and then push that to the limit. It is very hard to find a place that cares and does a good job in Palo Alto, especially one that does not serve the same old thing.

My understanding is that Steam is an offshoot from Tai Pan ... which I find hard to believe. Tai Pan is so stingy with their portions, mediocre in their execution and atmospheric with their prices I refuse to go there anymore ... despite it being comfortable and pleasant inside.

I have to give Steam a 5/5. I hope they continue to make the effort and be reasonable in their prices, if so I am becoming a loyal regular customer.


Posted by Wondering, a resident of Professorville
on Jun 18, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I cannot help but wonder if the owners of Tai Pan are aware that the name of their restaurant is also the name of the world's most poisonous, and some zoologists say aggressive, snake?


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