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Review: Estelle

A French empire in Fairhaven

Among the many remarkable dishes at Estelle — a new French bistro and bar in Fairhaven — is the duck confit. The skin is crisped and the whole duck quarter is served with a sweet-and-sour orange gastrique sauce. Radicchio salad is served on the side.
Among the many remarkable dishes at Estelle — a new French bistro and bar in Fairhaven — is the duck confit. The skin is crisped and the whole duck quarter is served with a sweet-and-sour orange gastrique sauce. Radicchio salad is served on the side. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)
By Mark Saleeb CDN Contributor

Back in May, I wrote a glowing review of Carnal, the first foray into the Bellingham food scene by Brooklyn trio James
Zamory, Aaron Saurer and Sean McDermott. I’m very vocal about my love for their second restaurant — Accomplice (née Comrade), slinging the best burgers and chicken sandwiches in town. So when I heard the savvy business partners were taking over the former Swim Club location in Fairhaven, on the corner of Mill and 11th streets, I was sold, immediately.

Estelle is described as “Pacific Northwest cuisine with French Riviera vibes.” To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with French cuisine to prove or disprove the latter half of that statement. I have no reason to doubt this, however. With haute French classics such as the brown butter omelet, confit duck and chicken with coq au vin sauce, the less culinarily sophisticated among us would benefit from discreetly Googling some of the terms so as to not embarrass ourselves on a date or while entertaining a client.

photo  Craft cocktails at Estelle include Lioness of Brittany, with quatre épices-infused rye, ginger, vermouth and curaçao. This is a spicy, herbal hard-hitter. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

We arrived early for the recent soft open in late October. The Estelle management intelligently retained much of the interior elements the previous tenant went to great expense to install. Curved wood details, taut leather, with dark French blue adornments. It’s a gorgeous space I’ve missed ever since Swim Club closed.

The atmosphere was near giddy; the restaurant filled quickly and the open kitchen was abuzz. We put in for the French omelet ($15), salmon amandine ($31), duck confit ($29) and New York strip steak frites ($33). For drinks, I started with the delightfully named Lioness of Brittany ($15), with quatre épices-infused rye, ginger, vermouth and
curaçao.
This is a spicy, herbal hard-hitter, and one Jeanne de Clisson would have probably enjoyed in between ship-to-ship combat.

photo  The French omelet was immaculately cooked, molten gruyere oozing out as the fork slipped through it. Omelet lovers will understand the hype. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

The kitchen was in top form — something I’ve come to expect from the Carnal team. The omelet was immaculately cooked, molten gruyere oozing out as my fork slipped through it. Omelet lovers will understand the hype — the rest of you may not. The salmon amandine, coated generously in a butter almond sauce and haricot verts (French-style green beans, picked early in their growth), was moist and creamy. Scraping my plate clean was non-negotiable.

The steak frites — meaning, if you haven’t guessed, steak and fries — was a perfect, medium-rare New York strip, coated in a brandy and peppercorn sauce, served alongside a mountain of the same gremolata fries served at Accomplice. The steak was excellent; tender green peppercorns contrasted nicely with the seared steak. The gremolata fries went perfectly with the sauce, really approaching a poutine-esque quality. Absolutely delicious.

photo  The salmon amandine at Estelle, coated generously in a butter almond sauce and haricot verts (French-style green beans, picked early in their growth), is moist and creamy. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

By far the best item we had that night was the duck confit. Confit, from the French “confire,” to preserve, is a method of cooking using fat, in this case duck, at temperatures lower than frying. This imbues the meat with the succulent fat, turning already delicious duck thigh and leg into something quite special. The skin is crisped and the whole duck quarter is served with a sweet-and-sour orange gastrique sauce.

The radicchio salad on the side was excellent, but, to be completely honest, fell to the wayside while I attacked the duck. As it cooks, the skin is pulled taut, producing a clean bone akin to lollipop-ed chicken drums. There was no gristle, no overcooked outside and undercooked inside — it was all completely perfect.

At this point, finishing off the last of my In Hathor’s Tree (a zesty, falernum-heavy rum and mezcal cocktail that made me think of summer, $12), I was easily convinced to order dessert. The chocolate and pear tart ($10) that resulted from that decision was an excellent and light end to our dinner. With flake salt and tart pear to balance out the richness of the creme fraiche and chocolate, I didn’t find myself erupting like Mr. Creosote after his wafer-thin mint.


photo  The steak frites (steak and fries) featured a perfect medium-rare New York strip coated in a brandy and peppercorn sauce, served alongside a mountain of gremolata fries. (Photo by Mark Saleeb)  

I can’t say for sure that Bellingham needed a French restaurant, but we are certainly better off for it. With these more elevated experiences, you sometimes have to be led. The staff was on-point, offering recommendations and answering questions without hesitation. Keeping with the themes of Carnal, I would not hesitate to tuck in my shirt and button it all the way to the top, but I didn’t feel any pressure to have to class it up to eat here.

Perhaps I’m biased. After all, I’m a huge fan of the other two restaurants in this restaurant family. I was cautioned that reviewing on the first night might result in a substandard experience, but to be completely frank, if the meal I had was them “working out the kinks,” they’re coming for the French Laundry when they get them all worked out. While the French never truly had an empire, these guys just might.

Estelle is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 1147 11th St. Find out more on Instagram at @bistroestelle.

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