We tried to get the pig’s head. We really did. Where else can you get a whole roasted pig’s head for $45? Or for any price? With orange sauce, if you please?
Alas, it was not to be. By the time our table mustered the guts to say, Okay, let’s do it, we’d already ordered a slew of tapas at Estragon. We did try substituting the pig’s head for the far less daring 16-ounce cowboy-cut rib-eye we’d chosen. But our request came too late. Out came the steak, and our porcine fix would have to wait for another visit.
Still, the steak was remarkable—"as tender as filet mignon, with the flavor of sirloin," the steak lover among us remarked. It had the marbling and much of the softness of Kobe beef, and superior flavor, for a better price ($33), compared with many big chunks of premium meat at other restaurants. No tricks: salt, olive oil, a grill, not even much char. Just really good meat (it’s from Savenor’s), plus some equally succulent grilled figs. We went through the whole dish before we could properly mourn the pig’s head.
I wasn’t expecting a plain steak to be so good. In fact, I wasn’t expecting steak, period. This, after all, is Boston’s first ambitious Spanish restaurant since Ken Oringer opened Toro, on Washington Street in the South End, and the news out of Spain—world capital of new-wave experimentation—hardly centers on simple grilled steak.
Located on Harrison Avenue (the new Washington Street, the new boulevard of restaurants), Estragon is aiming for the Boston big leagues. It’s part of a Spanish complex that’s long overdue: not just a bar/restaurant with lots of street seating, which is welcome enough, but also an adjoining Spanish gourmet shop called Las Ventas.
Co-owner Julio de Haro also ran (with his former wife, Deborah) Brookline’s Taberna de Haro, long the insider’s pick for like-in-Madrid food. Estragon, which de Haro has opened with partner Lara Gavigan, aims higher than Taberna. Most of the menu, though, is still more traditional than experimental, with plenty of meat and not much by way of vegetables, and there’s an overall old-school polish that bold Barcelona would likely find old hat (the way Barcelona views all of Madrid), but here feels pretty persuasive.
The interior aims for 1930s debonair, though the gold floral wallpaper and severe black décor with silver curlicued lighting fixtures look more 1960s Miami Beach to me than 1930s Madrid. The walls and ceiling, with scarcely a piece of sound-absorbing upholstery to be seen, reverberate mercilessly. The tables at Estragon are well spaced, but there’s an appealing long central bar where singles and couples can hang out and order a bite, and as a result the room is loud to the point of needing to yell to your dinner partner when the restaurant is only half full.
Noise and salt and occasional unevenness are the sole flaws in this excitingly ambitious new restaurant. Only the first two should make you hesitate, though just for a moment. If you want Spain-style Spanish, you’ll get it from chef Alex Castagneto (formerly of B & G, Great Bay, and Lineage): oil-sautéed Marcona almonds ($4); a properly oily, soft-potato-filled tortilla ($4); sautéed chunks of homemade Basque sausage ($6), fresh and crumbly and porky (they’d be even better on a grill), with only a faint pepper kick; ham, either a plate of the jamón blanco with Spanish honey and Marcona almonds ($7) or one luxurious serving of the newly available (in the United States) jamón ibérico ($20), marvelously marbled and sliced in irregular shards, as per custom. And something you should find made this well at every Spanish bar: croquetas ($10), a minor miracle of frying, crisp egg-and-crumb-battered torpedoes enclosing still-runny béchamel sauce and smoky ham nuggets. They’re irresistible, at once thirst-making and hunger-sating. Nothing is more Spanish than one of these plates with a glass of sherry, and Estragon might have the city’s best selection—one that will make you rethink any image you might have of sickly-sweet sips for tippling aunts.