Estragon is Serious about Cachondeo
Culling through my inbox (how does it get so full in one day?!) I found my Gourmet.com newsletter. There goes an hour!
To my delight I stumble on their review of the restaurant Estragon the new venture by half of the Taberna de Haro team. I believe the restaurant in Brookline was one of the things divvied up in the divorce. Too bad. It’s never happy news to learn of divorces. We somehow come out on top with the benefit of two great restaurants from the couple who gave us one before. My best to both, and I promise a visit soon to Taberna de Haro!
Let’s focus on Estragon for the moment.
Estragon is Tarragon
Whether you think of the character in Waiting for Godot, estrogen, or the James Beard quote about how even cannibalism might even seem possible if there were enough tarragon around, this is an intriguing name.
Not erudite enough to get the literary reference, and denying the importance of estrogen in my obviously mid-life self, I will settle for the Beardsian allure of tarragon. The cards say “Wine, Tapas, Cachondeo.”
Cachondeo means pretty much the opposite of serious. It’s used to connote the noisy, fun atmosphere the best restaurants have.
This is a place that’s serious about fun and serious about good food. But they don’t want to be too serious about much else and that’s good. Cachondeo. We remarked to our server about how the neighborhood was really changing and he said a friend had just remarked “who’d a thunk you’d be sitting outside having a cocktail at a cafe table lookin’ at the projects?”
Well, I don’t know about that, strikes me as a bit of schadenfreude, but let’s just say this is not your yuppified Starbucks-and-baby-jogger South End. This is still the grittier side of the South End. That’s okay by me. Especially when the food is this good. And I like that they seem to employ a little local flavor, too. Don’t you hate it when servers act as though you should be grateful just to be in their company? Not so here.
A tarragon-scented oil and a chewy baguette accompanied a tumbler of fresh sangria for me, and a limonada for Caleb. Damian and Natalia ordered the first bottle of wine. And then we got to ordering. Olives arrived including one type I’d not had before (I thought I’d sampled every olive known to man…)
Bread was so good, we had to have more, more oil and it was cheerfully and promptly delivered.
- Garbanzos Fritos – Toasted chickpeas – with paprika – easily one of the hits of the evening.
- We agreed that gambas al aljilo – the ubiquitous garlic shrimp – is one of those dishes that one can use as a baseline to judge a new Spanish restaurant. This one did not disappoint. Tenderly cooked, with herbs and butter added to the sauce this was indeed a unique rendering and a delicious one.
- Vieiras con alcachofas con crema de almendras – scallop with baby artichokes and almond cream – this was one large scallop and we split it four ways. One could eat this easily in a couple of bites, but the advantage of having four people at tapas or dim sum, is the advantage of being able to sample many different dishes.
- Frituras de Estragon – Fried Cuttlefish and Squid Ink onion rings, lemon pepper aioli. This was delicious but I was so focused on other items, I couldn’t turn my attention to it until it had cooled down a bit. Definitely worth ordering but think about timing.
- Cocotxas al Pil Pil – Cod Cheeks Pil Pil- Delicately fried cod cheeks with a sauce somewhere between a bechamel and aioli. Pil pil is a sort of thickened oil sauce, an emulsion, made with oil in which fish is poached. The fish lends gelatin or albumin to its cooking oil and the skill of the cook is in achieving the proper temperature balance and movement of the pan to swirl it into a sauce. “Pil Pil” is Basque for bubbling, and is onomatopoeic i.e. it sounds like that which it describes. (Like shabu-shabu – which takes its name from the swishing sound made by the food being swirled through the broth.)
The Basque flavor comes through in the sausage, too. There’s morcilla (blood sausage) in a tripe, trotter and morcilla dish. Also the Txistora de Casa – housemade Basque sausage had a delicate, almost melting quality I would have guessed came from liver but was told this was not the case.
The tripe dish was in a wonderful smoky sauce that none of us wanted to let go until we’d sopped up all the sauce with the bread.
In fact, even a second bottle of wine and desserts were ordered. We rationalized that as sated as we were, it being our first visit, we couldn’t pass on sampling desserts. Excellent flan, a chickpea cake and trio of ice creams.
Leaving Cachondeo Behind
The walk home was meant to off-set the extra indulgence. Passing through a cloud of smoke and some none-too-happy looking guys waiting for a bus reminds you that it’s still a neighborhood to be careful walking home from. There’s nothing fun and light-hearted about the immediate area surrounding this resto.
The other missing element for me was the feeling of cozyness the restaurant itself lacks. I like being cossetted away in the warmth of a special place. Estragon is up against it with the spartan feel of the obvious new construction, spare but not in the ultra-modern hip sense. The industrial space is not helped by the motion-sensor lights of the parking garage. The floor to ceiling windows make it hard to miss that or the pasty residents walking by in scrubs, stethoscopes around their necks. Feeling transported is only possible if your fantasy is a hospital parking garage.
The food is so good and the views so poor, I would have opted for closing off windows and wresting control of the atmosphere. If we only had the food and wine to focus on, as well as our company the staff could have controlled a sense of the moment, and managed the feeling of cachondeo. I would have been able to forget the less pretty urban reality. Or, go the opposite, go ultra-modern and embrace the urban reality. But this art deco dusted space kept reminding me it was neither one nor the other. Basque country remained just out of reach unless I closed my eyes and focused only on what I was tasting.
700 Harrison Avenue, Boston
Las Ventas – next door is their Spanish grocers. Jamon Iberico is said to be available. Can’t wait to check out the offerings.