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.
209 University Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily
Credit cards: yes
Parking: streets and city lots
Alcohol: wine and beer
Outdoor dining: yes
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: medium loud
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent