It’s all cozy booth-seating at Estilo, but I forgo one on a recent Friday night for the simplicity of a bar stool, and its side-by-side dining and proximity to the kitchen and drinks. There’s a full sextet cornering the bar at the year-old Latin American spot out Three Chopt Road, and it feels like our own private party in the midst of chill samba, a bar back vigorously polishing wine glasses under a spotlight of funky hanging lights, and Hugo, our beaming bartender, holding court. His topic is the new menu, and he can’t wait to tell us about it.
In January, Owen Lane of the Magpie added Estilo’s kitchen to his to-do list. The newly minted executive chef edited the menu to a format he prefers — small, medium and large plates — and injected it with his mastery of flavor pairings. Gluten-free remains a focus, though no longer exclusively.
The bar program saw a revision, too, particularly with updated cocktails ($8-$12) that are modern Latin takes on retro party drinks. This means lots of rum, tequila and smoky mescal. And citrus juice. The best of the old remains — local and gluten-free beer, as well as wine on tap.
All of these tweaks add up to one big game changer — at least for me. I dined here shortly after Estilo received local accolades in the Elby Awards last year and left feeling like I’d missed something. Now, I can’t get Estilo out of my mind.
Lane excels in the kitchen in a way that I take as a supernatural gift — as if poofs of smoke might appear right before he presents a dish. Everything is tasty, most of it’s excellent, though it’s true that the kitchen reveals the most passion around the smaller bites. This is where the real magic happens.
After my first visit, I actively crave two things, starting with the seviche ($11). It’s simple and fresh, and the best I’ve had in Richmond. Blue tilefish, tomato and red onion are marinated in lime juice and served overflowing from half an avocado. The decadence! Cumin and a smear of black bean purée balance the lightness, and there’s a butter-knife duel over the last bite.
Also stuck in the loving-memory center of my brain is the pig-head tamale ($13). There’s so much going on — butternut squash mole, pickled chili, queso fresco — though the expertly prepared masa is its highlight. It’s incredibly earthy, and the ground meat tucked inside is more of a suggestion of texture and depth.
Lane spins magic with roasted goat too ($16). Tender, shredded meat that tastes like beef with a twang of lamb is powered by cilantro and chili and served over masa cakes in the style of chicken and dumplings — more sweet than savory, but equally as hearty. Less interesting are the fried hearts of palm that look exactly like fried mozzarella sticks.
Dense slices of house-made rosemary bread pop up here and there. Its perfume pairs beautifully with the ham-and-cheese sandwich’s ($7) salty serrano and mild manchego, but it’s too much for the red royal shrimp ($15). Actually, everything on this plate overpowers the shrimp. It seems to be staged for a heftier main ingredient that can stand up to the chimichurri sauce base and cross-section of decorative bone in which the crustaceans are tucked. Better are the scallops ($24), seared and served over tomato broth and black beans.
Charred hangar steak ($19) can handle the chimichurri. But be forewarned, the recommended preparation turns out to be mighty rare. Be specific about this with your server. The side of roasted fennel and potato gratin is tasty but also lukewarm, a fluke.
Lane doesn’t end his meals on too-sweet notes, and desserts ($7) happily edge into savory so you can taste nuance rather than reel from a sugar high. I want the rosemary olive-oil cake to be moister, but the herbal notes combine with chili, orange and chocolate for a sophisticated finish. The avocado ice cream tastes more like squash ice cream, which is good, though the serving size compared to the price seems wrong even if it is house-made. The Mexican chocolate pot de crème is tops. A spoon could almost stand up straight in this dense pudding, and even the cinnamon whipped cream is hearty.
At the end of it all, Hugo asks how everything tasted. I smile and nod. He nods back and says what I’m thinking: “He’s a magical guy in the kitchen.” Truth.
It’s barely 9 p.m. when I hop off my stool to leave. The music is still lively and it seems like there should be a dance floor somewhere because the room’s energy registers like a beginning rather than an end. But the crowd has thinned.
“It’s crazy this place isn’t packed,” my companion says. We swoop past the velvet curtain entry into the cold with a little spring moon, just a day past full, rising straight ahead. S
7021 Three Chopt Road
Mondays-Saturdays, 4:30-10 p.m.