Cheat Sheet: Ester, a casual American spot in Dorchester

By Scott Kearnan  |  April 24, 2014

The Gist: Replacing The Ledge Kitchen + Drinks is ester (yes, the lowercase is correct), which opened last week under new owner Eleanor Arpino. Its lowercase name, a nod to "Dorchester" underscores the intent to create a convivial spot where the neighborhood's residents can gather for good times and good food. But Arpino, who offered hospitality consulting to Ledge before buying the space herself, brings with her big-time hospitality experience; she spent 16 years managing operations for Davio's. (Find her in the dining room when you visit. She's a warm, chatty charmer.) 

The Vibe: The updated interior has the simple, high tops-and-banquettes layout of any number of casual American restaurants; some Mediterranean orange and terra cotta hues keep things cheery, and a stone accent wall by the bar is a nice touch. The real star is the 100-person patio, the neighborhood's urban oasis. Ester is already relocating many herbs from its rooftop garden to the patio area, to increase upstairs space for larger veggie yields. A cherry tree and paw paw tree, which yields fleshy fruits that seem like a cross between a banana and mango, are both being added to the patio to offer even more fresh-plucked ingredients. 

Eat This: The menu is a straightforward mix of American fare imbued with occasional nods to the neighborhood's diverse ethnic backgrounds. For instance, a fresh, very flavorful salmon ($19) is served with harissa chickpeas and spice yogurt, while beef tongue tacos ($8) come with lime crema and pickled veggies. But our favorite dish might be the meatloaf burger ($12), a big patty slathered with sweet bacon jam and sandwiched by buttery brioche. That's the kind of comfort food any neighborhood needs.

Drink This: Well-made, nicely balanced cocktails include the Island Mule ($9), Mount Gay rum muddled with rum and ginger beer, and a really refreshing Basil Lemon Drop Martini ($10), which goes down dangerously-smooth. But we're already fantasizing about sipping the next one during perfect patio weather. 

Skip This: Mussels ($10) with smoked roasted tomatoes has potential, but needs more beer-and-butter based broth. 

For Fans Of: Anthem Kitchen + Bar, Five Horses Tavern, Savin Bar + Kitchen

The Damage: What damage? You can get easily get an entree and starter for about $25. Cocktails are about $10, with several less expensive. 

The Verdict: It fits nicely into its neighborhood. An accessible, cross-palate pleasing menu, above-average food, and below-average price points should make ester a solid, reliable standby for locals.   

ester, 2261 Dorchester Ave., Dorchester; 617-698-2261