Sterling House Has Room to Improve in Flavor and Execution

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It’s Wednesday night and one of the newest options for steak night is at Sterling House in Midtown.

For $20, 14 ounces of grilled rib eye, a salad, a side and a draft beer can all be yours. While the deal sounds good, taste is another test.

The small-bites menu was encouraging, with blistered shishito peppers, campechana and buffalo quail legs, impeccably described in print with words like “garlic confit,” “lemon zest” and “crudités.” The crispy chickpeas, golden-roasted and tossed in Aleppo pepper and sea salt, were simple perfection. Each crunchy pea deserved its own glorious bite. It’s pretty righteous when you reach into a bowl, only to find the fingers of the other person scrounging for the last chickpea.

Built in 1905, the historic home of the Sterling family (including former Texas governor Ross Sterling and many generations of his extended family thereafter) has been restored and reconstructed into a neighborhood bar with music and gastropub fare. The restaurant opened in mid-August at 3015 Bagby, along a street sparsely lined with old trees and older two-story homes. The decor is charming and rustic; the double-deck, wraparound porches conjure up lazy, lemonade-soaked Southern days. Warm white lights strung in rows across the outdoor patio deck set the scene for cool, chill-out nights, and this inviting space could easily be envisioned to become a favorite setting for gatherings and games with friends and pets.

We sat at one of the six backless metal stools at the bar (more of a half-cheek sit, not the settle-in type of chair). The interior downstairs is small and cozy, with a few tables and a couple of in-the-corner booths. The distressed-wood look feeds into the charm of the century-old house, but walking up the black metal staircase completely peels away that Southern charm. Appearing before us were two long bar tops and a small stage toward the back, with an impressive wall of liquor, mixers, bitters and brews lining the back side of the bar. Upstairs felt like a completely different space, but maybe that’s what Sterling House was shooting for. There is a special list of cocktails that can only be created upstairs, which doesn’t technically open for service until after 6 p.m. So downwards we descended.
The list of crafted cocktails downstairs is concise and quench-worthy. The upstairs cocktail menu added that hint of intrigue that could lead to an evening of less-than-innocent dalliance, and again Sterling House gets points for using descriptive components and mysterious and romantically named drinks to entice the thirsty thrill seeker. Mules are a personal test for a good cocktail bar — simple, tried and true, yet providing enough ground for creativity. The Sterling mule was executed flawlessly in a copper mug. On a second visit, the mariposa was ordered, mostly for the elderflower liqueur and the “flamed orange essence.” “Mariposa” means butterfly in Spanish. Although the butterfly-to-drink connection is vague, it was delightful, pretty and pink.

As a part of the steak night deal, my date ordered his free draft from one of the ten taps.

“Sorry, we don’t have the stout.”

“Okay, how about the IPA instead?”

“Sorry, we are out of that as well.”

Third time’s a charm, right? Not this time; three out of the ten taps were not available.

“Weekend Warrior it is, then.”

The steaks arrived more quickly than expected. There’s something about the aroma of a freshly grilled piece of meat that makes this girl weak in the knees. The crisscrossed grill marks were right on. Almost at sensory overload, we cut into our steaks simultaneously. For true steak eaters, a medium-rare is the perfect temperature to order a rib eye. Yet we plunged our knives into the center of the flesh only to find to our dismay that both interiors were still blue. Yes, blue-rare. By definition, a blue-rare steak is one that has been heated to a very high temperature very quickly, so it is charred on the outside but still rare or raw on the inside. The staff was nice enough that we could’ve sent the steaks back without any problem, but we decided to eat the perimeter and take the rest home for some leftover-makeover magic instead. What was consumed at the restaurant was in desperate need of salt and pepper.

The salad arrived in a separate bowl; the handful of arugula sprigs, with shredded Parmesan and a light vinaigrette, was very plain-Jane, but in an accompaniment for steak night, that was forgivable.
Side choices were broccolini, mac and cheese or triple-cooked fries. Triple-cooked fries, you say? We splurged and ordered both the fries and the mac and cheese. Here’s another personal test of culinary prowess. Mac and cheese is an example of a few simple, hearty ingredients coming together perfectly for a good bite. Sterling House missed the mark on this dish. What is it about dishes that arrive in miniature cast-iron pans? Judging by sight only, this mac and cheese was going to be ooey-gooey cheesy heaven. Sadly, the cheesiness was just a facade. Maybe the kitchen is using the wrong blend of cheeses or adding too much cream. The mac and cheese fell short of expectations on both of our visits.

It was a delight to see the arrival of the thrice-cooked fries. Nothing will ready you for these fries. Imagine that a large baking potato is quartered, then fried…then fried and fried again. Super-crispy on the outside, but soft and squishy on the inside. They were delicious with ketchup.
On our second visit, only one medium-rare steak was ordered, along with a trio of tacos — shrimp, brisket and tenderloin — the last of which was utterly disappointing and inedible. The beef tasted strangely sour, and the “SH Pico” came in larger-than-pico-size cubes bathed way too long in an acid that tasted like neither lime nor lemon, just tart and overly bitter. Not sure where the chimichurri was hiding in the taco, but all we could surmise was that the tenderloin, though tender, had been tossed in a chimichurri-failed sauce before it made its way to the taco.

The shrimp taco consisted of cut pieces of shrimp, sautéed in a spicy rub — think fajita flavor — and served in a piece of butter lettuce. The shrimp was cooked well and was easily my favorite bite of the night. The shredded brisket portion was generously presented in a street-taco-size corn tortilla. Topped with finely sliced radish, pickled onions and cilantro, the brisket taco was put together well and tasted okay, but it still lacked something.

The steak, this time plated alongside the small mound of arugula, the shredded Parmesan and a drop of vinaigrette, with both ends of the beef hanging off the appetizer-ready plate, was once again undercooked. We carved our way around the meat. It is not my usual practice to order steak sauce, but in this case, we asked. We were told that Sterling House doesn’t have steak sauce, but the waitress went to ask the kitchen anyway.

“They whipped something up!” she said, happily obliging us. The spicy, tangy sauce rescued the pieces of meat that could be eaten. Seriously, good stuff!

Why would a 14-ounce steak be served next to a side salad on an appetizer-size plate? Doing so doesn’t make the steak look any bigger; it only makes it difficult to cut and eat on the plate. Unfortunately, save for the cocktails, the fries and the chickpeas, Sterling House has room to improve in flavor and execution for a large portion of its food menu. Grilling steaks to the right temperature is an art; those who can’t do that should invest in a meat thermometer.

Sterling House
3015 Bagby, 917- 309-2106, sterlinghousehtx.com. Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Vintage Monday — industry night.
Live music and steak night.
Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.
One-half off wine, Champagne, frosé and Prosecco on Thursday.
DJs on Friday and Saturday.

Sterling mule — Absolut, fresh lime, ginger beer $9
Mariposa — deep eddy ruby red vodka, elderflower liqueur, ginger beer, flamed orange essence $9
Crispy chickpeas $5
SH mac and cheese $8
Triple-cooked fries $5
Steak night special (14-ounce rib eye, side, salad and a draft beer) $20
Brisket taco — pickled red onion, cilantro, shaved radish, queso fresco $4
Shrimp taco — lettuce cup, garden veg, chermoula $4
Tenderloin taco — SH pico, labneh, chimichurri $5

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