If you want to chart a neighborhood’s evolution, look at the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops that open there. When did the new South Boston overtake the old? Maybe it was when an Asian bistro, Owl Station, began serving sushi in the space that was once Whitey Bulger hangout Triple O’s. Or when Starbucks came to town. Or, perhaps, when Stephi’s in Southie arrived.
It’s the latest from eponymous restaurateur Stephanie Sokolove, who also operates Stephanie’s on Newbury and Stephi’s on Tremont, prime people-watching spots in prime locales. Now she anoints the area by the Broadway T station. Sokolove must emit some kind of sonar, because as soon as the new place debuted this fall, it was full. Women wearing skinny jeans and delicate jewelry, men in preppy sweaters and edgy glasses, and Lululemon devotees hoisting post-yoga martinis came together at the bar. Bulger had recently been convicted; the closing of longtime local the Quencher Tavern had just been announced. Their South Boston is at a remove, the stuff of movies based on novels. This South Boston is open for brunch.
Goodbye, grit. Stephi’s in Southie — so comfortable here it goes by two nicknames — is a beautiful space, stylish and feminine. Chairs are lined in scarlet ikat fabric, walls in twinkly white tiles. Dark wood boards are set against white paint in the coffered ceiling. At one end, there’s a wine bar and a gas fireplace; at the other, a larger bar and lounge area. The ladies room is wallpapered in Marimekko blooms. Servers address diners as “sir” and “miss,” and utter the phrase “I apologize” when menu items are unavailable.
Not everything is so polished. The back of the house is not as put together as the front. Executive chef Corey Comeau compiled a menu well suited to a modern neighborhood joint, replete with big salads, comfort food, and a few more-elegant entrees for those nights when one is feeling fancy. And the kitchen got off to a strong start; an early visit, for instance, yielded perfectly grilled shrimp in a salad with edamame, pickled cabbage, and red onion. It was good enough that one barely minded the billed avocado didn’t bother to show up.
But things have devolved. On recent visits, food is often unremarkable, sometimes downright bad. Braised pork belly glazed with ginger, soy, and chili sounds wonderful, but the meat is dry and tough. Wild mushroom risotto is more like button mushroom rice, without much flavor and with none of risotto’s creaminess. Fishy salmon is cooked until firm and pale at the center, topped with plain, raw shaved asparagus. A steak salad is hastily, sloppily thrown together, the steak cold and overcooked. The room-temperature salad is topped with a room-temperature poached egg, so the yolk coats everything in raw, viscous yellow.
Roast chicken is cooked well enough, although it’s plain and dull served in a pool of jus. “It’s just chicken,” our server warns. “It doesn’t come with anything else.” We are meant to order sides to complement it, steakhouse style. These are $7-$9 a pop, so should one want chicken with something crazy, like, say, grilled broccolini and mashed potatoes, that $18 chicken dish suddenly costs more than $30.
Some of these sides are quite good — acorn squash with maple butter and cranberry marmalade, shaved Brussels sprouts with bacon and butternut squash. But temperature issues recur with others, like the macaroni and cheese, lukewarm and topped with untoasted breadcrumbs.
There is more-satisfying fare to be found. An appetizer of pita-esque naan comes with very nice spreads: Tuscan white bean, walnut muhammara, and whipped ricotta with honey. Tuna tartare is a signature dish, the fish served in a sphere with avocado, complemented by a bit of heat from chipotle soy sauce and spicy mayonnaise, wontons offering textural contrast.
Stephi’s in Southie serves a fine rendition of the perennial beet salad, with crisp-edged goat cheese fritters, a zippy ginger vinaigrette, and slivers of mandarin oranges and fennel. And a bacon cheeseburger and spaghettini with meatballs are basic pleasures.
From a pineapple upside down cake made with unripe fruit to a toffee pudding with dry cake, dessert feels halfhearted. And while the staff at the bar provides amusing banter, the bartending itself can be erratic. A cocktail called Omar’s Coming — gin, Aperol, St. Germain, lemon juice, and a champagne float — just tastes like gin; a Southie Julep comes without mint. The wine bar features an Enomatic dispenser, designed to prevent spoilage. This means more wines available by the taste, glass, or carafe (reds, at least, which greatly outnumber whites), in addition to a list of bottles.
Options are always welcome, and Stephi’s offers Southie a new one. It’s a beautiful space with a friendly, fun staff and a thriving bar scene. Sometimes that’s all one needs to succeed. Yes, there’s better pork belly, roast chicken, and risotto to be had in the neighborhood. There’s Starbucks too. This is South Boston.
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Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.