Whatever else you eat at Estelle, you’ll come back for the pastéis de nata.
When these humble-looking, eggy little custard tarts hit the table at the new Spanish-Portuguese-Italian spot in the former Bottle Rocket space in St. Paul, they might not look like much, but they will put a hook in you. These perfectly flaky spiral laminated pastries are filled with rich, subdued, seductively creamy filling and made with so much care that it feels like love.
The pastéis de nata, priced at $3 apiece, are tidy little symbols for Estelle as a whole. The same sense of care and craft that makes these simple little sweets a transportive experience fills the warm, convivial, comfortable atmosphere of the restaurant, the cocktail menu, and the rest of the food menu.
Much of that credit reflects on chef Jason Hansen, whose resume includes time spent at the elegant and seemingly ageless 112 Eatery and the remarkably good St. Genevieve, where he was the opening chef de cuisine. But it reflects also on his team, who buzz through the open kitchen and busy dining area with a palpable sense of focus and energy.
We tried the Baked Oysters ($12 for three) to test the restaurant’s mettle right off the bat—good oysters are wonderful raw, and not everyone can put together a baked version that’s worth the fuss. But we thought the fine, beautifully crunchy bread crumbs and tangy spinach were a perfect pairing with the meaty oyster enrobed within, and found the entire dish to have a Japanese-evocative flavor profile that was warm, balanced, and pleasing.
The restaurant’s rendition of Tortilla Espanola ($10) may be the best that we’ve tried, and we’ve eaten it made-from-scratch at home, at respectable tapas restaurants in Boston and New York, and in southern Spain. This layered savory potato pie can veer toward egginess or come off as a bit bland, but the addition of a bit of butternut squash boosted the dish’s sweetness and an accompanying salbitxada sauce (think pureed almonds and mildly hot peppers) provided a welcome kicky richness. In terms of texture, there’s nothing about this dish’s chewy/crispy exterior that could have been improved.
We also loved our Shrimp al Ajillo (garlic shrimp, $13 for three)—big, meaty, properly cooked shrimp swam in an intensely garlic-kicked butter sauce that was as good on the accompanying baguette pieces as it was on the seafood. And the crispy/tender contrast of crust-to-filling in the Salt Cod Croquette ($9) was absolutely right on the money, although it’s worth noting that the dish’s appropriately fishy flavor may put off some diners.
We’re used to restaurants that offer stellar appetizers and adequate-but-forgettable entrees—it’s forgivable, because after you’ve been dazzled, you’re a bit more prepared to eat for sustenance and let the show go by the wayside. Estelle, if anything, goes the opposite direction—both of our entrees were legitimate show-stoppers.
The Piri Piri Chicken ($16) is worth a drive from Rochester, and maybe even from Duluth. The tart, bright, quick-pickled veg in this dish was a perfect foil for the fluffy, perfectly cooked jasmine rice and juicy, earthy chicken, everything accented and elevated by the inclusion of a seriously spicy and robustly flavored chili sauce.
And then fennel sausage, onion, roasted red pepper, and Calabrian chili-kicked Rigatoni ($14) was a pasta triumph, the noodles delicate but springy, the sauce bright, complex, and ideally balanced between richness, earthiness, and heat. Also pleasing were the Triangoli ($15), meaty, springy little triangular ravioli-like pasta bites that pop with pork and apple flavor.
Of the cocktails we tasted, Estelle went five for six. Only The Inquisition ($9) let us down. This concoction of Old Overholt Rye, Tattersall Amaro, sage maple syrup, sherry, and green chartreuse was overwhelmed by the syrupy sweetness of the syrup at the expense of its other components. By contrast, the Pelo de Perro ($11) was a thoroughly tasty kaleidoscope of flavors, including GinRaw Barcelona Gin, Bonanto bittersweet liqueur, Tattersall Absinthe, unfiltered prosecco, orange liqueur, and lemon—and we could taste all of them, to varying degrees, the cocktail shifting and changing sip by sip.
Our Scotch-, fruit-, and vermouth-driven Spanish Moss ($12) was balanced and pleasant, and the white grape Seasonal Sangria ($6) was refreshing and enjoyable without either the fruit or the wine overshadowing their partner. The Return of the Mac Old Fashioned ($9) was a pleasingly balanced twist on an old reliable (succeeding in a niche similar to where The Inquisition failed), and The Best Spanish Coffee This Side of the Pyrenees ($8) really was coffee-forward, effectively bouncing that caffeinated bite off of warming spice and sweetness.
Another fine way to end the meal: the restaurant’s vanilla soft serve ice cream with crumbled Basque cheesecake and huckleberry preserves ($7). The ice cream was smooth and yielding but pleasantly rich, an ideal canvas for the tangy browned and eggy cheesecake bits and lively berry preserves.
While finishing up our last few bites, we took stock of Estelle’s place in the firmament. Restaurants serving Spanish (and/or Portuguese) food have a rocky and fairly sparse history in Minnesota. Spots like Solera and El Meson have enjoyed good if inconsistent runs, and the current-day restaurants of Hector Ruiz sometimes capture the magic of Spanish fare, but it’s not generally a cuisine that has been reliably represented in Minnesota.
Estelle addresses that gap in the local landscape, and if it sticks around for a few years, it may (hopefully!) inspire a legion of imitators.