When we first moved to Roanoke, we didn’t know what Stephen’s was. A club? A business office? A spa? It wasn’t until we saw the “FRESH SOFTSHELL CRABS” banner that we knew what to expect.
For our first visit, we arrived at 7:30 on a Friday evening. The restaurant, favored by the over-50 crowd, was about 85 percent full. Our friendly waiter, who turned out to be Chef Stephen’s son (Stephen Jr.) explained to my spouse and me that the restaurant was short one chef and, while normally a manager, tonight he was waiting tables.
Stephen’s is known for its seafood.
The menu is jam-packed with ocean delights: fried jumbo soft-shell crabs, Chesapeake rockfish, scallops, tuna, oysters, Louisiana redfish, Norwegian salmon, crawfish tails and étouffée. Unfortunately, those who aren’t fish lovers have only a couple of choices – filet mignon and parmesan-crusted chicken breast.
The atmosphere is friendly; the restaurant’s layout of rooms leaves tables pretty close together, which on this night proved unpleasant. The lighting was not overly dramatic, and there was a nice buzz about the room.
When my husband asked if something other than chicken or steak was available, Stephen apologetically explained that most of the time that might be an option, but not when they are understaffed in the kitchen.
For an appetizer, I ordered the jumbo shrimp and lump crabmeat cocktail with rémoulade sauce and “grits chips.” This arrived in about 10 minutes, and consisted of three shrimp arranged around a lump of crabmeat drizzled in sauce. Everything was fresh and tasty. The rémoulade sauce, which is generally a blend of mayonnaise, ketchup, Dijon mustard, lemon juice and Cajun seasonings, spiced up the sweet crab meat. The chips were crispy and salty, with the grit coating adding texture.
Salads, which came with our meals, took a while, and came with two choices of dressings, spicy bleu cheese and raspberry vinaigrette. The salads had tomatoes and chickpeas sprinkled over mixed greens, and were topped with shredded ricotta cheese.
Our meals arrived 20 minutes later. My sashimi yellowfish tuna was carefully arranged on the plate, surrounded by a pool of red chili-ginger-garlic sauce, topped with sweet pepper and onion sauté plus avocado slices. Though the dish wasn’t piping hot, the tuna was delectable, and the hot/sweet sauce provided a delectable twist. The tuna was tender and the meat was easily cut with a fork. Kevin’s filet mignon was extremely good, and cooked exactly as requested. His baked potato, however, was barely warm. The chef’s vegetables on the side included asparagus, carrots and cabbage.
The night’s entertainment turned out to be its drawback as well: a drunken golf aficionado, dining alone, who affixed herself loudly to an older couple dining a foot away.
Thankfully, dessert was enjoyed in peace. The featured desserts of the evening were chocolate pots de crème stuffed beignets, blueberry/blackberry cobbler with pecan brittle and vanilla ice cream, and chocolate fudge pudding cake with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.
We tried the first and third choices. The pots de crème featured a light pastry stuffed with whipped crème and fluffy chocolate and topped with swirls of raspberry sauce. It was delightfully sweet, though not overpowering, and was a light conclusion to the meal. The fudge pudding cake, right out of the oven, was soaked in chocolate, though not soggy, and was the richer option.
From start to finish, our experience was two hours – a considerable time to linger over a meal, so this may not be acceptable to those with post-dinner plans. Stephen Jr. was wonderfully polite, despite staffing pressures and the obnoxious golfer. All in all, the experience was mostly pleasant.
The second time we stopped by, the kitchen staff was all accounted for, although Stephen Jr. was still buzzing around greeting customers. In fact, he remembered us from a couple of weeks before. “Good to see you again,” he said cheerily.
The service was speedier, and the crowds were about the same as the last time. The menu featured the same items as our previous visit – certain fish and seafood items are at their peak during the summer months, especially the Chesapeake soft shell crabs. I ordered the lobster bisque as an appetizer. The bisque featured lots of lobster chunks, with a heavy cream base. The lobster was sweet and the bisque was a nice preface to the meal. It arrived in a small cup, which is good since it is so rich.
I tried the soft-shell crabs, which are a bit intimidating to first-timers. Three whole crabs appeared, lightly fried. “You eat the whole thing,” our waiter explained. “Start with the legs, and then move on to the tender middle.” Okay. Stephen Jr. came by to check on us. “Some people are just crazy about those soft-shell crabs,” he said. “And some are brave like you and decide to give them a try.” He brought a cocktail sauce and tartar sauce for dipping.
As promised, the “shell” wasn’t really a shell at all, and eating the crab was sort of like dining on breaded shrimp with a milder taste, especially when paired with the cocktail sauce. The legs were a little crunchy and it felt odd to pull them off and pop them in my mouth, but the dish was appetizing. Served on the side were steamed spinach, cabbage, squash and carrots. Although I’ll probably stick to crab cakes next time, everyone should give the soft-shell variety a try.
Kevin once again asked if something other than chicken or steak was available, and the waiter said Chef Stephen sometimes made vegetarian plates, but that those were usually ordered in advance. So Kevin went with the parmesan crusted breast of chicken on tart cider butter sauce. The chicken was lightly breaded and the sauce was delicately flavored and not overly sharp. The simple dish didn’t have a lot of zip, but was satisfying for a non-seafood eater.
Thankfully, the second time we dined the golf pro was not on hand. We enjoyed the pleasant atmosphere and the friendly background of voices – none so loud we could follow another’s conversation.
Alexandra’s Advice: Have back-up kitchen help on call in case of emergencies, limit the alcohol served to those who have no designated driver – and no social awareness – and push those tables a little further apart. In addition to super-fresh seafood, your strengths are your super-friendly staff and dependable menu, though a few more options for non-seafood eaters would be welcomed.