CBD restaurant and bar Esteban borrows from all corners of Mexico: scallop aguachile from the Western region of Sinaloa; beef barbacoa inspired by the country’s Carribean diaspora and influences; and tacos al pastor from Puebla’s street food trucks. It’s not bound by any specific area nor by any commitment to making Mexican food in its most traditional or mainstream forms.
Nestled around the bend of an inner-city laneway and free from the baggage of a twee name, it has all the low-key charm of a younger, grungier sibling to Paddington’s Tequila Mockingbird – which makes a lot of sense given it's the same team at the helm.
The menu is constantly surprising. Take the kingfish ceviche starter for example, where a sweet, watermelon sorbet is spooned on top of the zested fish, served with crisp-fried plantains to scoop it up for a round-kick of tart flavour. Or the pulpo a la parilla (that's grilled octopus for the uninitiated), which is scattered with tiny green micro herbs and a salty-sweet raisin puree. Unexpected elements inject a sense of fun to the proceedings – Esteban takes dining seriously, but not too seriously.
When your appetite has been well and truly whet, it’s time for mains. The Tasmanian salmon with salsa borracha, or ‘drunk sauce’, comes apart at the light touch of a fork, tender and gummy-pink inside. Vegetarians will be satisfied, too. There are plenty of options dotted across the menu, like the charred camote, a sweet potato dish with a wallop of flavour from the addition of native Australian ingredients like saltbush and dried muntries.
The dining space at Esteban manages a level of quiet sophistication without being too neat or pretentious. Charro murals by Sydney-born artist Nanami Cowdroy line the walls in the large upstairs room, while a long, natural granite bar with counter seating takes on the look and moody feel of a 1950s train carriage. It’s most definitely a vibe – pick a table in the buzzing basement area and order some bar snacks (it’s a slightly different menu from the one up top) where you'll feel like you're amongst all the action.
Dessert keeps with the theme of elegant whimsy: the white chocolate mousse with popcorn ice cream is Esteban’s signature, and it’s carried to your table like a cloud pulled down and plated up. It’s seriously rich: reserve some stomach space for this one.
The extensive list of agave-based spirits is the most noteworthy aspect of the leather-bound drinks list. The Tequila Mockingbird, made famous at the bar of the same name, is expectedly on the list, and there’s a sweet, tangy option called the El Tarasco with coconut and lime, which tastes like the melting edges of a tropical icy pole left in the sun, in the best way. Or, try the Margarita flight if you’re feeling like it’s going to be a night long enough to knock back all that tequila. Esteban is open until 1am, after all, so you’ve got some time to let loose.