A world of textures and flavors at Stephen's Market and Grill
A grand makeover
By Allison Costa 10/18/2012
Stephen’s Market and Grill
2632 E. Main St.
$5.95 - $14.95
As you pull up outside of Stephen’s Market and Grill in midtown Ventura, the taupe-colored building with its basic block-lettering sign may lead you to believe that what lies inside is yet another run-of-the-mill neighborhood bar and grill. Who knew that inside this large space whose outsides scream Americana, the chef is busy rolling out filo dough for delicate spanakopita, painstakingly layering potatoes and eggplant for his moussaka, and hand mixing and scooping vibrant green falafel? Who knew that inside, one can find a variety of Mediterranean grocery items like pickled garlic, canned sardines, orzo and olives in bulk, baklava, halva and more. Until we stopped by for lunch one Saturday, I sure didn’t.
Stephen’s fills a large space (many may remember the spaces as it used to be Chuy’s), and offers a large dining room, patio seating out back, and two rooms at the front filled with the aforementioned market items. Guests can peruse the menu posted above the kitchen, order at the counter, and then select a table of their liking as they wait. Service is prompt and our food was brought to the table with a warm smile.
Each time we stopped in, there were samples of olives and cheese — a fun flavor experience to fill the time. The standout is the Moroccan olives — salt-cured, I was told by the folks at the counter. Though apparently there are no added herbs or spices, they were memorable for their flavor, reminiscent of the cumin and cinnamon often found in Moroccan cuisine. These are sure to become a staple in my house.
The menu at Stephen’s offers a great sampling of Greek and Mediterranean, with a few American dishes, like a cheeseburger and fries, thrown in as well. Greek salads, lentil soup, gyro sandwiches, keftethes (Greek meatballs) and pastichio (Greek lasagna) are offered alongside chicken fingers and spaghetti for the little ones and roast beef and pastrami for those seeking deli sandwiches. Beverage options include soda, iced tea and bottled drinks available from the cooler.
In the course of a few visits to Stephen’s, we sampled a variety of dishes. Of the starters, we tried the tiropita (think spanakopita minus the spinach) — two large triangular pockets of filo filled with soft feta cheese. We relished the delicate snap of the filo against the creamy tang of the high-quality feta cheese. We also ordered the kafteri — a cheese spread served with warm wedges of toasted pita. The cheese is pungent and salty, with a nice graininess to it — a great topping for the ever versatile blank canvas that is pita bread.
Stephen’s Special is an interesting dish — consisting of four jumbo shrimp stuffed with feta and jalapeño and wrapped in bacon and served with fries and a Greek salad. The jalapeño offered a nice surprise of flavor and the bacon a nice bit of salt and smoke, but the dish paled in comparison to the moussaka we ordered as well.
One of Stephen’s more popular dishes, the moussaka offers layer upon layer of flavors and textures: soft potatoes and eggplant, ground beef with a hint of sweetness, and a thick top layer of béchamel. Served as a big square and finished with a tomato-based sauce, the presentation alone is noteworthy. In a similar vein, the stuffed tomato and pepper are filled with a mixture of rice and ground beef, and finished with a flavorful broth and melted cheese. As we ate this duo of stuffed vegetables, I couldn’t help but wonder if this dish might be something that a Greek grandmother might serve, perhaps the embodiment of Greek comfort food?
Of the sandwiches, we tasted the lamb gyro and the falafel … both wrapped in soft, just barely toasted pita bread and finished with tzatziki sauce. The gyro offered a wonderful interplay of temperature, textures, and flavors: crisp onions, refreshing tomatoes, vibrant chopped parsley against the warm flavorful lamb and the flavors of dill and garlic in the sauce. The only downside: I missed the often rugged cut of your typical gyro meat (cut roughly as it turns on the spit), as this seemed more like sliced lamb sausage. Unfortunately as well, the intense garlic flavor of the tzatziki overpowered many of the other flavors in the sandwich, leaving them muted in comparison.
The falafel is a nice option for vegetarians, though on this particular day it erred on the dry side, often the fate of even the best falafel. It is topped with the tzatziki sauce as well as lettuce, tomato and onion and served with a thick tahini sauce on the side.
With its Mediterranean menu, Stephen’s is a great option for a casual lunch or takeout for dinner the next time that craving for a gyro or Greek comfort food strikes.
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