The Southerner at the table is delighted. Her eyes widen and then narrow on the little bowl in front of us.
“Are those bread and butter pickles?”
“Were they made in house?”
The first bite ensues.
“My dad and I made these when I was growing up in North Carolina,” she reminisces. “These are delicious, but we would never put carrots in them.”
Those pickles tell you nearly everything you need to know about Estelle’s, a new Southern-inspired restaurant in the South End. It will not be mistaken for a mainstay in, say, Savannah, Ga., nor does it try to be. Estelle’s is definitively a Northern approximation of what you’d find below the Mason-Dixon line.
Case in point: the garlic seared greens. They’re al dente, nicely seasoned with the right amount of tang, but my dining companion raised in Kentucky takes one look at them and turns up her nose. She won’t even try them.
“They’re not dead,” she says bluntly, referring to the Southern tradition of slow-cooking vegetables for hours upon hours.
That’s a niggling point for a place that otherwise gets an awful lot right under the direction of co-owner Brian Poe (Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake, the Tip Tap Room) and executive chef Eric Gburski (East Coast Grill).
With windows that look out onto the Parish Cafe across the street at the corner of Tremont and Mass. Ave., Estelle’s is the latest addition to the Wilcox Hospitality Group, which also owns the Parish. It’s named after a nightclub that once stood in nearby Roxbury Crossing, the kind of place where soul singers like Bettye LaVette played in the 1960s (and she still mentions that every time she comes back to Boston).
Estelle’s makes a solid first impression. On our initial visit, I leave thinking I’ve found a restaurant to bring my Midwestern relatives with a taste for Southern comfort. The catfish is the most memorable I’ve had in Boston, soft and succulent with a little grit from its cornmeal crust; the bed of red beans and rice underneath is heavy and superfluous.
For a starter, the hush puppies — a fried Southern staple of cornmeal batter that, when done well, are far tastier than they have a right to be — steam when split in half, cutting the intensity of corn flavor with the salt from little hunks of tasso ham. For a sweeter bite, an orange-chili honey comes on the side for dipping.
An appetizer of deviled eggs would be standard enough, but then the essence of chicken liver shines through for a long finish. The pickle plate is, in fact, an assortment of vegetables that have been perfectly pickled, meaning you taste the veggies more than just the vinegar and spices.
The drop-off, however, between the first visit and the second one a week later is astonishing. Everyone is entitled to an off night, especially a restaurant that opened the first week of December. We take a seat when the Patriots are having such a night, losing the playoff game that would have taken them to the Super Bowl. The restaurant is nearly vacant, save for a few folks at the bar, eyes glued to the game screening overheard.
As the Patriots are going down, so is our meal. Blackened redfish doesn’t have a speck of char on it, and the flesh is dry. A tomato-bacon jam enlivens it, as do the circular slabs of sweet potatoes whose grill marks are sorely missing from that redfish. Grilled jumbo Gulf shrimp are the main offender, though. From one end of the plate to the other, it’s a disaster: cold, parched shrimp; a rectangle of bland grit cake; and crunchy, spiced corn nuts sprinkled throughout. Two bites suffice, a third goes down with a gulp of water.
Buttermilk fried chicken, with its crackling skin, keeps the meal afloat. Both white and dark meat are coated in a rich sausage gravy, but not too much. As is often the case, the side of mac ’n’ cheese is entree-size. More puzzling is a slight taste of herbs that we can’t quite place but assume might come from a pungent cheese. The Monte Cristo sandwich is savory and warm, a good balance of its various flavors.
Desserts, on the other hand, need an overhaul. The red velvet moon pie is so hard and cold from the refrigerator that it becomes a parlor game: How long until you have forced your fork through it? The sweet potato pecan pie splits opinions at the table. I find it incongruous, a mound of unsweetened mashed potato with some pecans mixed in. The dissenting vote claims it’s a welcome break from the usually cloying pecan pie he’s had. Either way, neither of us would order it again. The chocolate peanut butter pie at least knows what it is and tastes as such.
In disbelief that the second trip was indicative of Estelle’s potential, I visited once more. I’m glad I did. Alone at the bar, I order a shrimp po’ boy and a glass of Pinot Noir. (Estelle’s has a beer-and-wine license, the beer selection is at least extensive — 30 on tap and several more in bottles.)
One bite of the po’ boy, and Estelle’s has redeemed itself. The sandwich, while a bit skimpy on the shrimp, is toasted, with a crunch from both the bread and the fried green tomato inside. Even the fries have bounced back from the Patriots’ loss, hot and crispy this time.
Then the soundtrack, courtesy of the bar’s iPod, yanks me right out of the South with a problem that extends well beyond geography: Can’t a man enjoy a po’ boy without Avril Lavigne butting in?
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.