Steve Christianson could have named his restaurant Steve's, but by splitting and punctuating his name he came up with something that sounds grander. St. Eve's, in Ho-Ho-Kus, has a wood-burning grill, rustic yet hip decor and a loyal following. Reviewer Karen Tina Harrison takes the measure of its food.
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Steve Christianson could have called his restaurant Steve’s, but he wanted something special. So he ran with his wife’s idea, splitting his first name in two and dropping in a period. The result, St. Eve’s, sounds classy, even a bit ethereal. His wife, Judi Christianson, co-owner and manager, also devised the look of the restaurant, from its contemporary wall art and retro-chic chandeliers to the pair of 150-year-old barn doors (salvaged from a Hawthorne farm) that divide the two dining rooms. For all that, what you have in the end is food and service that can rise to St. Eve’s-ness, but more often seems just plain Steve’s.
St. Eve’s has a loyal following. Tables are hard to come by on Friday and Saturday nights, and it’s no ghost town on weeknights. But after sampling most of the menu in three visits, I can’t count the food at St. Eve’s as one of its seductions. While some dishes, especially appetizers, were appealingly prepared, entrées tended to be bewilderingly conceived or overcooked, sometimes both.
A CIA grad, Christianson, 56, was chef Kevin Kohler’s partner at Café Panache in Ramsey in the late ’80s, then ran Citrus Grille in Airmont, just over the state line in Rockland County, New York, from 1993 to 2009. “I took a year off and came back refreshed,” Christianson told me in a phone interview after my visits. He opened St. Eve’s in April of last year.
Delicious banana bread—a recipe of Boston-raised Christianson’s mother, whom he calls “my mentor”—may be in the basket of breads brought to your table. If not, it’s worth asking if there’s some in the kitchen.
In hopscotching around the menu, I landed on some winners. Briny Moroccan gazpacho, a frequent special, had a base of puréed black beans spiced with cumin and red pepper. It was more Southwestern than North African, but very good. The soup was loaded with popcorn shrimp full of fresh shrimp flavor (but chewily overdone, a harbinger of things to come). Christianson’s busy wood-burning grill produced a trio of crisp, delicious, fresh sardines brushed with lemon-infused oil and dusted with herbed breadcrumbs.
Another seafood starter is a must order: the heaping bowl of sweet Prince Edward Island mussels steamed in a white wine-based broth, heady with roasted garlic, shallots, lemon confit, organic tarragon, other herbs and a pinch of saffron.
A fine casual meal could be made from those mussels, followed by the St. Eve’s burger—8 to 9 ounces of ground Black Angus chuck topped with cheddar, caramelized onions and red-wine-braised short ribs, Daniel Boulud style. This two-fisted treat comes clapped between halves of a terrific Parmesan-brioche bun from Panificio Bolea, a bakery and neighbor in the strip mall that houses St. Eve’s. If you conclude with the house-made classic cheesecake or the luscious butterscotch bread pudding, you will have hit the St. Eve’s trifecta.
Sadly, several other dishes failed to win, place or show. A good-sized Maine lobster roll, its meat fresh and delicate, was overwhelmed by a mayonaise-based sauce overloaded with celery, onion and chopped red bell pepper. St. Eve’s makes its own fresh pastas and makes them well. But the shellfish in seafood pappardelle was mostly overcooked and rubbery. Bucatini in two vegetarian renditions were dull, but sage brown butter sauce with a touch of local honey enlivened butternut-and-ricotta ravioli. Line-caught Atlantic swordfish, Jersey dayboat scallops and “wild-farmed” Atlantic salmon came to the table overcooked. Gingerbread-crusted salmon (ordered “seared outside, like sushi inside”) arrived as sere as Styrofoam, with zero ginger flavor.
The provisions themselves are excellent, many fished or farmed locally, but a turkey paillard (cutlet) was as tough as pemmican, and venison medallions were leathery. My hanger steak came rare, not black-and-blue as ordered. The light char imparted by the wood-burning grill tasted bitter. I scraped it off and savored the steak, which had marinated for a week in red wine, peppercorns and a touch of molasses.
A Scottish Angus steak, also ordered black-and-blue, arrived medium-rare. A pity, because it was a $44 sirloin chop, dry aged 28 days. “Mistakes happen,” shrugged our combative waitress, later admitting she had put in the order as “rare” (which, except in better steakhouses, will be medium-rare when you cut into it).
Both steaks were plated with a retro starch: a buttery yet bland sliced potato and onion pie, baked and served undercooked. The fries we ordered as a side never showed up.
Not all of pastry chef Lorraine Bashian’s desserts were as good as her cheesecake and butterscotch bread pudding. A dark-chocolate soufflé, made with Ecuadoran cacao, was nothing special, and a $10 assortment of cookies were brittle and drab. A root-beer float that the chef’s grandfather Harold used to make was enjoyable enough, but hardly a reason to reach for the phone and reserve a table at St. Eve’s.
611 North Maple Avenue
HO HO KUS, 07423
Offering modern American cuisine. Features a wood-burning grill and stove. Owner/chef Steve Christianson uses organic and local produce and meats when available. BYO.