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Little sister steps out, stumbles

Food doesn’t match billing at Stephi’s on Tremont

The lobster shepherd’s pie (above) and the hot smoked trout are commendable entrees at Stephi’s on Tremont in the South End. The lobster shepherd’s pie (above) and the hot smoked trout are commendable entrees at Stephi’s on Tremont in the South End. (Photos By Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / July 15, 2009
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This is a tale of two restaurants. One, Stephanie’s on Newbury, a see-and-be-seen spot popular with tourists and shopping gal pals. The other, Garden of Eden, a neighborhood cafe for South End residents in search of brunch, sandwiches, and socializing. They had a few things in common - stellar patios, average food. But they felt very different, by virtue of their locations. Stephanie’s felt like shiny Newbury Street, Garden of Eden like the more alternative South End.

Then Garden of Eden closed, the victim of a dwindling customer base (and the pesky little matter of unpaid meal taxes). And who should take over the space but Stephanie Sokolove, owner of the namesake Newbury spot, and now also Stephi’s on Tremont, the little sister restaurant with the cutesy nickname.

There were doubters. The South End doesn’t have the kind of tourists and shoppers that make up the crowd at Stephanie’s, they said. Or, the South End just isn’t the right place for a Stephanie’s clone.

But Stephi’s isn’t a clone. Just like real siblings, the two places have different personalities. To the doubters’ surprise, Stephi’s on Tremont looks like a pretty big hit. For one thing, it’s more of a neighborhood hangout than one might have expected, with a lively bar scene. For another, that neighborhood has changed since Garden of Eden’s heyday. “More alternative’’ becomes less alternative each year. And so the people at Stephi’s are an interesting mix: preppies, families, business people, tattoo obsessives, rich kids, older couples, women in going-out outfits, neighborhood types, and one night a guy who looks like a younger Hulk Hogan.

Stephi’s catches plenty of its barflies with sugar: The cocktail menu is replete with flavored vodkas. The wine list is fairly mass-market and reasonably priced. When a customer tells a server she wants sangria but not if it’s sweet, he recommends the pink version over the red. The first sip is a high-fructose pow right in the kisser. Offer up a prayer for the teeth of the person who favors the red.

The food is more palatable. It’s the equivalent of Juicy sweats, a tad more dressed up than your average comfort fare. Meatloaf gets stuffed with cheddar cheese, shepherd’s pie spiffed up with lobster, and macaroni and cheese fancified with prosciutto and truffle oil. These dishes aren’t fooling anyone: They’re still sweatpants.

There’s a certain amount of overlap with the food at Stephanie’s on Newbury; executive chef Corey Comeau comes from that kitchen. On the menu, adjectives abound. In a section marked “comfort food classics,’’ the meatloaf is billed as “our famous meatloaf.’’ In the whole entire world, how many restaurant dishes actually qualify as famous? And how many of these are described as being famous on the menu? Fame means never having to say you’re famous. But if the claim must be made, at least be better than OK. Stephi’s meatloaf is OK. The texture is good. The cheddar doesn’t add much flavor. The mushroom gravy tastes salty and . . . brown. The mashed potatoes are bland and airy.

The macaroni and cheese is “legendary.’’ I would describe it as “creamy,’’ which doesn’t have the same ring. It’s very mild, topped with bread crumbs, and served in a cute little skillet. It tastes very similar to an appetizer of prosciutto and Parmesan fritters, also creamy with a crunchy crust, if nearly devoid of anything resembling prosciutto. (One bite contains a little pink fleck.)

The burger, too, gets the “classic’’ billing, and it’s accurate. This is what you think of when you think of a burger. Served on a brioche roll, it’s ground sirloin topped with cheddar, caramelized onions, bacon, and mushrooms. It’s a good burger, if a little overdone. The fries are good, too, just thick enough to achieve the perfect crunchy-outside-to-smushy-inside ratio. The onion rings, however, are terrible. They come as a side, stacked in a tempting tower, but their appeal is solely visual. When you bite them, the batter comes right off of the onion. You’re left with a mouth of crunchy dough, a tough and intact circle of onion still in your hand or on your plate. A side of tater tots is just as bad - bland, thin mashed potatoes held together by a fried crust.

It would be more exciting to eat the signature lobster shepherd’s pie if a full quarter of the menu didn’t come under the rubric: Another section of the menu is titled “Stephi’s signature salads.’’ Still, this particular signature has flourish. Lobster is actually a main ingredient in the mashed potato-topped pie, rather than the accent it sometimes is in lobster dishes. The meat is tender and sweet. The corn pudding it’s layered with is sweet too, a bit too much so; there are also spinach and peas in the mix.

As for the salads, there are hits and misses, but it’s really nice to be able to get an entree-size salad, something that’s often oddly hard to come by. The Newbury Street chunky chicken salad (“a classic since 1994’’) is very ladies-who-lunch, something you’d expect to be served in a department store restaurant. The chicken salad is about the blandest thing ever, there are large pieces of hard and tasteless bread lying across the plate; the tomatoes are equally hard and tasteless. Something with so little flavor should at least be low in calories, but the amount of mayonnaise in the chicken makes that unlikely.

A Caesar salad with little slices of steak is a better choice. There could be more dressing - it’s nearly naked - but this is a nice salad of romaine hearts, roasted tomatoes, and croutons. The steak is blackened on the edges and rare in the middle. A little more salt would go a long way. So would a little more steak, considering the salad is $18.

An Asian yellowfin tuna salad with chilled udon noodles harks back to the gourmet creations of the ’80s. The noodles are just one ingredient in the salad, everything tossed together, rather than a costar with the tuna. It looks a hot mess, though it tastes pretty good. Thankfully, there are no mandarin oranges included, despite the lump-sum “Asian.’’ We know enough now to name names - is it a Thai salad? Japanese? Not really. It owes its allegiance to the land of fusion.

It’s visually similar to an appetizer of crispy fried rock shrimp, which are thrown together with all kinds of vegetables to make a colorful medley. The shrimp are fresh-tasting and appealing in a fried, General Gau kind of way; corn and avocado lend good texture to the mix.

Corn pops up again in the sweet, intensely bacony chowder served with pan-roasted cod and potatoes. (The fish is topped with onion strings that are much better than the onion rings.) With less bacon and less sweetness, this would be a very good dish.

It should take a lesson from the smoked trout, which is served hot over roasted potatoes with a three-bean hash. It’s simple, but the fish is delicious, with just the right amount of smoke, and the vegetables are golden and garlicky. It’s one of the best entrees at Stephi’s.

Dessert is mostly skippable. Sticky toffee pudding is certainly sticky on the outside but nearly uncooked on the inside. Orange-flavored blueberry cobbler is too heavy on the orange. Cheesecake, however, is a good New York-style version with a chocolate crust, served with raspberries and a stiff blob of lime whipped cream. The flavors work well together.

The restaurant looks very different than it did as Garden of Eden, styled out in browns and creams and marble. On one occasion, as we head across the room and down the stairs to the bathroom, we hear waiters grousing about specific patrons - not too classy. It’s just possible said patrons are cranky because they have to ask for glasses of water, ketchup for burger and fries, wine lists. Or because their server has left the detritus from each course on the table and they’re tired of looking at that gross piece of macaroni. Many of the servers here are friendly and capable, and the ones who aren’t make them all look bad.

But service isn’t what you come to Stephi’s for. Stephi’s on Tremont splits the difference between Stephanie’s on Newbury and Garden of Eden. It’s a neighborhood hangout where you come to see and be seen, South End style.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

STEPHI’S ON TREMONT

571 Tremont St., Boston. 617-236-2063. www.stephisontremont.com.

All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Appetizers $7-$14. Salads $14-$18. Entrees $14-$34. Dessert $10.

Hours Sun-Wed 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Thu-Sat 11:30 a.m.- 1 a.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest: Crispy fried rock shrimp, blackened sirloin Caesar, lobster shepherd’s pie, hot smoked trout.

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