"Do you live in the neighborhood?" asks the beaming, bearded host at Estragon as he guides you to your table. He probably hears a whole lot of yes. Looking around the tapas joint, there are South End power broker couples eating with other South End power broker couples, a waiter from another nearby restaurant with friends, arty types, families with kids (South End kids tend to like grilled octopus and Padron peppers). Blocks away at Banq and Gaslight and the Beehive, the seats are filled with people who don't have resident parking stickers. But at Estragon, the we-miss-Claremont-Cafe crowd finds refuge.
Isn't this always the way. The artists and the gay people move in, hip up a neighborhood, make way for the wealthy, and then can no longer get a table at their favorite bistro. Restaurant gentrification: It's an urban problem for the ages.
I kid. But it is hard, or at least weird, when your neighborhood changes. Sitting on the edge of Where People Go when they come to the South End - Estragon is on Harrison Avenue, at the less-galleried, less-sports-clubbed, less-bar-scened end by the police station and Boston Medical Center - the restaurant manages to feel a little more like the South End of, even, five years ago.
That's not all that's retro. The decor at Estragon takes you farther in the Wayback Machine, to Madrid in the 1930s. The walls are papered with Art Deco floral patterns and hung with old, evocative black-and-white photos. Deco chandeliers and sculptures abound, and ornate mismatched chairs are clustered in a lounge area near the front entrance. The floors are checkered black and white. An eclectic mix of music plays loudly, and as the night wears on the lights get dimmer and dimmer till you need the candle on your table to read the dessert menu. Yet somehow, even when it's busy and at top volume, Estragon feels relaxed.
It's a good place to come when you don't want to deal with the scene at that other tapas bar down the street. Toro, extremely popular and often mobbed, lurks like a force field, threatening to pull potential Estragon customers into its orbit. When Estragon opened just a few blocks away, one had to wonder whether this was wise. But its growing crowds prove there's room for twice the tapas.
And Estragon has established its bona fides. It's co-owned by Lara Gavigan and Julio de Haro, the Madrid native formerly of tapas favorite Taberna de Haro in Brookline. (His ex, Deborah Hansen, remains the chef-owner there.) Estragon also has a secret weapon: chickpea crack. They call it "garbanzos fritos" on the menu, but the dish has addictive powers far beyond those ordinarily associated with a humble legume. The chickpeas are deep-fried and dusted with paprika; the more cooked ones take on the flaky texture of pie crust, while the less cooked are crisp with a soft middle. Bar the bar nut! Everyone should serve fried garbanzos instead. With a glass of sherry (there are six on offer), they whisk you mentally to Spain in a flash.
Nurse them, or your plate of Spanish cheeses (also for sale next door at sister market Las Ventas), or whatever little tidbit arrives first. You may not see your next plate for a while. Some nights, it can be only a slightly longer-than-average wait. Others, the food arrives just a few minutes before Godot.
If you're with friends and not in a rush and sipping sangria or refreshing limonada (house-infused citrus soda with white wine), you won't mind. Many of the dishes, from chef Alex Castagneto (Great Bay, the Butcher Shop, B&G Oysters), are worth waiting for. The classics are here, and very well rendered. Gambas al ajillo are among the best I've had, the shrimp just cooked through and saturated with the golden flavor of garlic, made rich with olive oil. Gazpacho is smooth and balanced, no one flavor overwhelming the others. (It's supposed to be watermelon gazpacho, according to the menu, but every time I tried to order it they had tomato instead.) Along with the tapas, there are several raciones, or larger portions: Paella is satisfying, the rice retaining bite, not mushy, and with crunchy bits on the bottom from contact with the hot pan. It's full of chicken, squid, and shrimp, plus strips of tender roasted red peppers.
But plenty on the menu is not classic, or at least not tapas cliche. You've got your patatas bravas and your tortilla Espanola, but also blood sausage and frogs legs, tripe and sweetbreads. For lovers of animal bits, scraps, and oddities, the menu is a treasure trove. There's even a whole suckling pig's head in orange-paprika glaze. ("The teeth freak me out a little," confides one waiter.)
On one visit, we munch baby eels on toast. They're the tiny kind one often sees in Japanese restaurants, no more than a centimeter long and with a tiny pinprick eye. (OK, they look like worms.) Here they're browned, curled from the heat, and served with a lovely, lemony aioli beneath them on the toast. Braised oxtail quivers on its star-shaped bone, coming off in fatty shreds. A sherry reduction enhances the rich beefiness of the meat.
Spicy tripe, trotter, chorizo, and morcilla stew is stewy but not spicy. The tripe is tender, the morcilla (blood sausage) full of flavor, but it's more comforting than exciting. A sea urchin and foie gras slider on brioche may be too much of a good thing - the urchin and the liver flavors never really come together, though they are nicely offset by a pickle-like onion relish.
Octopus appears in several incarnations on the menu. A pulpo carpaccio on one visit is delicious: thin-sliced octopus with shaved fennel and orange in vinaigrette. It's light and invigorates the palate. Grilled baby octopus with Spanish baked beans features a tiny, tender octopus surrounded by unfortunately dried-out beans. The two dishes sum up the food at Estragon: Sometimes the flavors and textures are clear and coherent, sometimes they just miss.
A scallop is crisp and brown on the exterior, its creamy interior enhanced by the dollop of almond cream it's served with. The baby artichokes on the side are disappointingly flavorless, though. A racion of cumin-y lamb skewers tastes great; some of the meat is tender, but some is far too chewy. Padron peppers are greasy and in need of salt; Serrano ham croquettes look cool, like little golden footballs lined up on a plate, but they just taste like bechamel with not a lot of ham, and they stick unpleasantly to the teeth.
For dessert, there's very good flan flecked with vanilla beans. An ice cream trio features caramel, honey-thyme, and nougat; the herbal-sweet honey-thyme alone would make this worth eating. Wine is all Spanish, with good values from many different regions; there are even a few Spanish beers. They'd be great with the chickpea crack.
If you don't get addicted to that, you may still find yourself craving Estragon's atmosphere, low-key yet stylish. Dinner here is a relative bargain. Round-trip tickets to Madrid are currently about $1,000. Round-trip tickets in the Wayback Machine are harder to come by.