Estelle opened a couple of years ago in St. Paul in whatever that neighbourhood right by Macalester is called. It got rave reviews from the local press and despite my suspicion of the local press—whose excitement often seems to me to have as much to do with the idea of a place as with the food itself—we’d planned to eat there in early 2020. But you know what happened next. I don’t know if they had a takeout pivot through the pandemic but with the exception of one occasion with Tenant our pandemic takeout meals skipped the high end. But we finally made the return to dining-in last month (yes, at Tenant) and Estelle was the next place we made reservations at. We were joined by friends we eat out with regularly—and with whom we ate a number of takeout meals in the last year and a half. This is how it went.
We originally had a reservation on what is listed on Resy as their patio. We decided to change this to indoors as we weren’t sure if the heatwave in the week prior was going to subside. Well, the heatwave had subsided but it was a good thing we did change the reservation as the heat and humidity had been replaced by smoke coming down from forest fires in Manitoba. Plus it appears as though their patio might just be tables on the not very wide sidewalk outside the restaurant—or is there another patio elsewhere? Inside the space is divided between a long and rather narrow/tight bar that is entirely separated from a mid-sized dining room. We were in that dining room at a large table. The open kitchen is located there and there are a few counter seats overlooking it. All in all, the dining room is a warm, pleasant space (and it seemed like they were running at full capacity). We sat down, ordered drinks and got down to bidness.
Estelle’s thing is tapas, though it may be more accurate to think of it as a small plates specialist. They do have an edited tapas menu that can be ordered only at the bar but in the dining room proper the menu comprises both small(er) and large(r) plates and dishes whose inspirations are Italian and Portuguese in addition to Spanish. And no, you can’t really convert the menu to an appetizer and entree model. All of the small(er) plates we got were much larger than the usual appetizer portion. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Though it may be a germane observation in that this is probably not the dining room for a couple as much as it is for a group. As a couple two dishes will probably be too little and four dishes too many. For the group of five that we were, however, five small plates and three large were only a little more than we could handle—and that partly on account of a bit of inadvertent bad ordering that our server should really have alerted us to.
What did we eat?
From the “Small Plates” section of the menu:
- Arugula Peach Salad. A large and quite tasty salad. The only off-note—as the missus noted—was overly-acidic pickled cucumbers (and that’s from someone who eats kimchi at almost every meal).
- Patatas Bravas. A Spanish classic done quite winningly here—but it’s a very large portion; yes, even for five people if you’re sharing a large number of dishes. And this was part of our ordering error, on which more below.
- Arancini. From Spain to Italy for five very nicely done crisp rice balls..
- Shrimp al Ajillo. Probably everyone’s pick of this round. Perfectly cooked shrimp, a lovely pool of sauce that we enjoyed mopping up with the toasted baguette.
- Tuna Crudo. Could have been very good but the fish was overwhelmed by both the cure and the large number of things on the plate.
From the “Bocadillos” section of the menu:
- Bacon Cheeseburger. Given the times—and place—we live in the bocadillo section includes a burger in addition to the more traditional baguette-based sandwiches. A good thing too as that was what the 18 yo in attendance wanted and he ate most of it. I did get a big bite though and thought it was very good. It came with a large side of patatas bravas which rendered the separate order fairly redundant.
From the “Large Plates” section of the menu:
- Fideua. The classic dish of toasted noodles cooked a la paella, this featured clams and shrimp and was quite tasty.
- Scallops. Seared scallops with oyster mushrooms etc. on a bed of arroz negro (rice cooked with octopus ink). The scallops and the mushrooms were done very well but the rice divided us a bit. The flavour was very nice but some found it too gloppy for their liking.
- Pasteis de Nata. We got a couple of these ($4 a pop) and they were excellent—perhaps the best thing on the menu.
- Lemon Honey Cake. Quite tasty but, despite the long list of components noted on the menu, nothing very far out of the ordinary.
- In addition they put down a small complimentary plate of churros which we quite liked.
To drink three cocktails (see the captions in the slideshow below) and a beer. I could have taken or left my cocktail (The Door Into Summer with tequila, watermelon etc.) but the missus quite enjoyed her sangria blanco and one of our friends her La Poncha with coconut, rum, cachaca etc.)
For a look at the space and the food, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see what I thought of it on the whole and to see how much it all cost.
Well, as you can probably tell from the descriptions above, we liked the food on the whole. There were a few dishes that had components that didn’t quite add up but on the whole the food was tasty. However, with the exception of the pasteis de nata and possibly the shrimp there also wasn’t anything that we could see ourselves wanting to come back soon to eat again. That is to say, there was nothing really that wowed us. Which is fine. This is not a destination restaurant, more of a neighbourhood spot. And it’s priced much closer to the latter than the former. Granted we only had four drinks between the five of us but we got out of there at less than $50/head all-in. If we lived close by I’d probably be likely to stop in for a snack and a pasteis de nata at the bar. And I’d probably get sherry or wine to go with it rather than a cocktail.
Service was very friendly and warm without being cloying. Our server described the menu well and was on top of things. He also offered to add a couple of scallops to that dish so we could each have one—I note now while uploading these pictures that we don’t seem to have been charged for the extras (I don’t know if that’s a mistake but if not, it’s highly appreciated). We did think, however, that he should have let us know that we were heading for a patatas bravas overload. You order everything at once there and we’d made it clear we were sharing everything. Frankly, the amount of the potatoes served with the burger would have been enough for all of us (we liked the patatas bravas but not quite that much) and we could have ordered a different dish as well. But this was not a big deal in the larger scheme of things.
Oh yes, Estelle is another restaurant that has gone to the “no tips” model with a 20% surcharge added automatically to the bill. In our view this is a welcome development and we wish all restaurants would go to it. There is a tip line anyway on the check for anyone looking to leave even more. On a less happy note, I got a call a day later informing us that a server—who had thankfully not been in our section—had tested positive for Covid (a breakthrough case, I think). We did appreciate their promptly calling all diners and the fact that they promptly shut the restaurant down. I hope the server is recovering well. Perhaps when they re-open they can encourage/require all staff to wear masks and customers as well when not eating.
Alright. We’re off to Madison next week and so may not have any weekend dining on our schedule. If that ends up being the case my next two restaurant reports—this weekend and next Tuesday—will be of Kansas City meals. But who knows, we may yet eat out this week. We are scheduled for dinner at Petite Leon in Minneapolis at the end of next week. I do hope the developing covid picture will allow us to keep that reservation. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet what are you waiting for?