Much like travel, word choices are tricky things. If you’re not careful, both can be full of stereotypes and expectations. St. Paul’s Estelle, in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood, has been labeled by itself and others as serving “Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish-inspired comfort foods.” In this case, I think “inspired” is a key word.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel through the countries cited as inspiration. My memories of those experiences and their cuisine informed my excitement to dine at Estelle, to see where that inspiration led them.
Without a reservation, the bar straight ahead of the entrance is your best bet. The differences in ambience between the bar and dining room make Estelle feel bigger than it is—almost like more than one restaurant. The bar area is dark and cozy, lined in leafy wallpaper, inviting whispers. The dining room feels bright and open, with a wood wall that draws the eye’s attention away from other diners’ dishes as they whisk by. Despite an open kitchen, the ambiance remained relatively quiet as I sipped on my Un Buen Camino, a creative mocktail with cola, vanilla, lime foam, and aquafaba that tastes like a dry cross between a Cuba Libre and a fizz.
A benefit to dining in Estelle’s vinyl-fueled side bar is ordering from its extra pintxos menu. Pintxos are basically tapas, frequently small sandwiches or skewers, and very popular along the north coast of Spain, especially in the gastronomical mecca of San Sebastian. This pintxos menu is pleasantly affordable, which means a lot of flavors can be had for not a lot of money. I ordered a variety that were similar to things I’d enjoyed in my travels.
The Gilda is a skewer with white anchovy, green olive, and pickled pepper that goes great with a light, crisp beer. It’s got lots of umami, salt, and pickle, with just a touch of sweetness from the pepper.
Estelle’s bacon-wrapped dates—stuffed with chorizo, topped with a Calabrian marinara—are salty, fatty, spicy, and sweet. Stuffing them with chorizo instead of the more common nuts or tart cheese is a novel, good take on a classic. Roasting the dates gives them a soft, caramel-like consistency that plays well with the chew of the bacon.
Chicken liver mousse (“torejjas, fried brioche, pickled orange, and chive”) is one of Estelle’s menu descriptions that gave me pause; torejjas is French toast, presumably made from brioche, while both the dates and The Gilda arrived with chives despite no warning from the menu. While I enjoyed all the flavors present, this bite-size dish’s toothpick presentation proved clumsy, and I ended up using a fork.
I was intrigued by Estelle’s orange fennel salad with pistachio, arugula, feta, and olive. The dish surpassed my expectations. Estelle builds the salad on a base of orange segments, with little olive wedges and micro-planed feta over the mound of arugula, and pistachios tumbling throughout. The salty and tangy taste of the feta is subdued thanks to this construction, and brings more of a savoriness throughout. The tang is handled by the orange’s tartness, as the saltiness is from the olives’ brine. If anything, I could have done with more fennel flavor, but the salad was delightful.
The shrimp al ajillo found shrimp in a butter sauce with chili oil, chives, and baguette for absorbing some of that goodness. If you ordered this in Madrid, you’d be welcomed with a simpler dish of freshly shelled shrimp sizzling in a garlic-laden olive oil, crusty bread, and a toothpick—divine simplicity. At Estelle, the shrimp are served head-on and with little instruction. Trying to eat the shrimp heads proved a bit too chitinous—a few more seconds in the fryer would probably render the heads more enjoyable to crunch.
The salt cod croquettes are essentially mashed potatoes mixed with shredded fish, made into balls, and deep-fried. Most pintxo bars in San Sebastian have a variety of these, including this cod version and a ham and cheese rendition. Their plating varies from the dining room to the bar, though the five croquettes arrive with some delicious house-made tartar sauce, and a lemon wedge. The creaminess of the potato and the filaments of salt cod encased in crispy little packages are really enjoyable, and remind me of fish sticks I enjoyed as a child, which then came paired with blue-box mac and cheese.
The fideuà again took me back to this “blue-box mac and cheese”—not by the flavor, which is quite good, peppered with shrimp, clams, and ham hock—but by that noodle texture. The more elevated pasta’s cooking liquid is almost entirely absorbed, but what remains is enhanced by the small amount of starch released from the noodles, similar to the creaminess of a risotto. As the noodles jostle one another, they settle into neat parallels—like those spoonfuls of freshly made macaroni with just the right amount of butter and milk (always slightly more than what the recipe instructions call for). Make sure to ask for a bone dish for the empty clam shells; the service vessel doesn’t allow for much room to push them out of the way.
Pasteis de nata were one of my favorite pastries during my travels. Though Estelle’s version of the classic dessert is a little different than what you might find in the various shops in Lisbon, it still hints at the enjoyment you’d find biting into one in Portugal. Like their inspiration, our local homage’s custard is eggy and sweet in a well laminated shell that’s slightly thicker and less filled than their inspiration. Again, presentation varied from visit to visit: Once both cinnamon and powdered sugar were present, whereas recently the sprinkle of cinnamon seemed to be missing.
Every visit finishes with a couple small churros with chocolate sauce; they’re tasty, but unlike a typical churro, they’re less chewy and reminiscent of the exterior of a cream puff.
While I won’t say Estelle’s renditions of these familiar dishes transported me back to my travels, the cuisine’s inspiration was evident and honored throughout. I hope they continue their research—whether it’s dialing in the crispiness on the bottom of their fideuà, or those pasteis de nata ratios—as each greatly enjoyable dining experience kept me thinking about the region, and wanting to return soon.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of Estelle
1806 St Clair Ave, St. Paul