The 22-year-old Steve's restaurant probably began its life in Back Bay at what some called "the other end" of Newbury Street -- where nothing much was going on. There were no chic shops anywhere near this Hereford Street location. All that has changed, and Steve's is sitting pretty amid the throngs of hip visitors to the neighborhood. Those visitors join the loyal neighbors, some of whom breakfast several times a week at Steve's and who turn to this dependable Greek place for kebabs and salads for lunch and dinner. Steve's has plans to open a new takeout-only location in the food court at Faneuil Hall Marketplace next month, so we decided to check in at the original restaurant to taste some of Steve's specialties.
We did a double take one night when we saw Nepal-born Prakash Gyawali at the register of this 52-seat bare-bones place. We recognized him from his perch behind the counter at Demos, the Greek restaurant in Watertown, where excellent kebabs fly off the grill faster than the speed of light. Like Steve's, Demos has its devotees; many think it's cheaper to eat at Demos than to eat at home. Within close proximity to Demos is Andros Diner in Belmont, which offers the best Greek salad and delectable dressing this side of Athens. Steve's, please take note.
With Gyawali at the register and kebabs on the menu, we thought Steve's might be at the level of Demos or Andros. Close, but not quite. Steve's does have some excellent offerings -- particularly in its homey baked dishes -- but some ordinary items, including the Greek salad, which comes with most meals, need more attention.
Steve's is named for Greek-born Steve Kourtidis, who opened this spot with his wife, Kipairisia. Kourtidis's daughter Natalia and another sister, Anastasia, work at the Lake View Pavilion in Foxboro, near Gillette Stadium, a banquet hall that the family also owns.
Two years ago, the Kourtidis family bought the building that Steve's occupies, which is one reason they can keep prices below $14 for an ample serving of seafood or meat with rice or fries and a salad. And that's saying something, especially on Newbury Street. Everything here is priced right, and if you choose carefully, you'll be pleased.
Avgolemono ($3.95), the Greek rice and chicken broth soup, was creamy and deliciously lemony. Dolmades stuffed with rice ($5.25) had tender grape leaves and a smooth, cool garlicky tzatziki for dipping. The octopus ($7.95) might have had taste if it had been seasoned before grilling. Appearing like a rosette on the plate, the taramosalata ($5.50), salted fish roe pureed with potato and olive oil, was a gem. The accompanying pita was stale, however, possibly the result of being left uncovered for too long.
But a plate of charcoal-grilled swordfish kebab ($12.95), which isn't easy to get right, was perfect. It was cut into large chunks and heaped on the plate with green bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions, beside white rice covered with a ladleful of tomato sauce. This is the house sauce; it's not light, so it masks the taste of the food. Chicken kebab ($10.45 on a plate; $6.25 in a sandwich), made with breast meat, wasn't as moist and succulent as the swordfish. The famous gyros ($9.25 on a plate; $5.25 in a sandwich), made from beef and lamb, had lots of flavor, but they, too, were drier than they should have been. More successful was the lamb kebab ($10.45 for a plate; $6.25 for a sandwich).
A dish called giovetsaki ($10.95), lamb shank pieces in tomato sauce with orzo pasta, was generous with tender meat, a good example of old-fashioned cooking. The roast lamb special ($11.95) offered a cut whose compressed texture resembled nothing I'd ever seen. Besides, it had no flavor. And the night of the lamb visit, our salads were covered with curds of feta so wet and tasteless that we had to ask if it was cottage cheese. An apologetic waitress brought new salads with slices of firm white cheese. Was this the difference between cheese from the bottom of the bucket and cheese from the top?
With the number of tourists coming through Faneuil Hall, Steve's is poised to do well in yet another top spot. That is, if someone learns not to use the sludge from the bottom of the feta bucket, to keep the pita bread covered, and to take care of a few other details.
All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants. Victoria Seafood, 1029 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-783-5111. This unpretentious Chinese restaurant is a great place for a large party: You can feed a dozen people for under $100, without sacrificing quality. Try the special twin lobsters, done one of four ways, for $12.95. The sizzling beef with black pepper includes another favorite: garlicky green beans on top. And the hotpot dishes aren't something you see on most Chinese menus. With 247 items on the menu, you can't go wrong. (5/6/04, B.E.) El Taino 417 Hyde Park Ave., Roslindale. 617-325-5900. This Puerto Rican restaurant and Latin nightclub gives local islanders a taste of their native home and introduces island cooking -- which combines Caribbean, African, Indian, and European foods and seasonings -- to those unfamiliar with it. That means plenty of fried and baked meats and seafoods, lots of plantains, and delicious tropical juices and nectars. Come nighttime, the music ratchets up and tables are removed to create a dance floor. (04/29/04, S.P.)Punjabi Dhaba 225 Hampshire St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-547-8272. Billed as an "Indian roadside cafe," Punjabi serves terrific, cheap food in a no-nonsense place where you order at a counter and take a large stainless steel tray -- heaped with curry and a mountain of rice and a zippy little onion pickle -- and find a seat in the crowd. The shimp masala, saag paneer (homemade cheese in spinach puree), and tandoori chicken will keep you coming back. (4/22/04, S.J.) Caffe Paolina 646 Humphrey St., Swampscott. 781-593-6455. The homemade pastas, light Southern Italian cuisine, and superb tiramisu at this petit restaurant taste all the better when served up by the friendly Lapore family. (4/15/04, D.T.)
Grill 417 417 Hanover St., Boston. 617-742-7172. It's getting difficult to find good, affordable restaurants in the North End. This one fits the bill. It's a small, casual place where freshness is the operative word, from the antipasto to the Grill 417, a grilled seafood platter with scallops, shrimp, tuna, swordfish, and salmon, as well as grilled veggies. Kids will love the pizza, and the pasta dishes are sublime. Be sure to start with the roasted scallops swimming (happily) in a light marsala-tomato sauce. (4/8/04, B.E.)
International Buffet 237 Quincy Ave., Quincy. 617-773-9838. This primarily Asian buffet is a warehouse of food, with seating for 500, eight buffet tables, a carving station, a sushi bar, a self-serve ice cream cooler, and a serious identity crisis. The more than 150 buffet items include Swedish meatballs, shark fin dumplings, chicken nuggets, clam chowder, Peking duck, mussels au gratin, and chocolate pudding. Quality ranges from delicious to atrocious. You can assemble a tasty, healthful meal by sticking with sushi, veggies, or fruit. (4/1/04, S.P.) Sarah's Cafe 200 Concord Ave., Cambridge. 617-876-5049. Hidden like an oasis in the back of a convenience store, this deli-grill serves fresh, very cheap, quasi-gourmet meals in a super casual, but comfy setting. Place your order at the walk-up counter for homemade soups, impeccably fresh salads, upscale sandwiches, simple pastas, and satisfying dinner specials. (3/25/04, D.T.)