In case you missed it, here is my review of Estéban Restaurant that appeared in Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.
Hotel restaurants are tricky territory. Because their biggest clients are the hotel guests — a revolving door of patrons that changes night after night — many hotel restaurants inevitably wind up feeling rather cold and corporate.
But a few restaurants — like Estéban Restaurant, inside the Casa Munras Hotel — have managed to crack the equation, attracting a strong local following, while balancing their primary clientele of out-of-towners.
It doesn’t hurt that Estéban has one of the most popular happy hours in town — “La Hora Feliz” is offered Monday through Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m., and all night Sunday, with deals on drinks and small bites.
Last week, I dropped by not once, but twice for happy hour.
As always, happy hour started with a couple of pintxos, like the Medjool dates — stuffed with blue cheese and wrapped in bacon ($3) — or the huevos diablo — a deviled egg topped with rock shrimp and pepperoncini ($3).
At $3 a pop, these small bites can get a little pricey, so I only order these during happy hour when they’re just $1 each.
With the sangria ($4 per glass during happy hour, normally $7) flowing, we sampled a couple courses of tapas, starting with some veggies.
The Piquillo peppers — with golden raisins and garlic chips ($7.50) — were roasted, cut thin, then laid out beautifully on the plate. The sweet raisins and pungent garlic chips gave extra depths of flavor.
The brussels sprouts — with bacon and garlic ($8) — were a disappointment. They were a little greasy and despite the addition of bacon and garlic, they didn’t have much flavor.
My newfound carnivory swayed me to order some meat selections next.
The albondigas — Spanish meatballs ($14) — were quite nice. The meatballs weren’t anything fancy, but when paired with a red pepper sauce, they were mighty tasty. The sauce was appropriately sweet and spicy, with rich tomato and peppers.
The chile-coffee rub on the hanger steak ($13.50) was a great touch — it gave extra crunch to the outside and unique flavors, too. I wish it had been applied just a little more liberally — to carry the flavors beyond the crust and into the meat itself.
No meal at Estéban is complete without an order of the pulled pork empanadas ($13), with light, flaky dough giving way to tender, juicy pulled pork with each bite.
For a sweet finish, we ordered the churros ($6.50). They weren’t served like traditional churros in “stick” form — these were like churro dumplings with dough piped out in a little pyramid and fried, four pieces per an order. And the accompanying caramel sauce was quite flavorful.
When I went back for a second visit, I was pleased to see some new items on the menu.
The wild leeks — with preserved lemon, currants and almonds ($7.50) — were a curious addition. The flavors were nicely tart and acidic, but the texture was a little stringy and chewy.
This time, I also ordered Estéban’s signature pulpo (octopus) confit ($9.50). The meat walked that fine line between tender and chewy as octopus often does.
I loved the Mediterranean flavors with garlic and cherry tomatoes. I just wish the cherry tomatoes had been more flavorful, but such is the risk of eating tomatoes out of season.
The short ribs ($14.50) were a generous portion, topped with pickled onions. Sadly, they were a little tough — they would have been so much better if the meat had been just a little more tender.
The crispy pork belly with rhubarb vinaigrette and white polenta ($12) was probably my favorite dish of the night. It was a classier take on bacon and grits — the fatty pork belly had a beautiful caramelized char outside and was served over a perfectly creamy polenta.
On both nights I dined at Estéban, executive chef Tom Snyder made the rounds through the dining room to talk to diners. It was encouraging to see a chef take the time to come out of the kitchen and meet the diners he’s cooking for.
It’s attention like that — paired with great happy hour deals on booze and food — that has enamored locals with Estéban.
Estéban is at 700 Munras Ave., in the Casa Munras Hotel, in Monterey. 375-0176. www.estebanrestaurant.com.