Restaurants are notoriously difficult businesses with small profit margins and the need to continually attract a sometimes fickle dining public. So it’s especially exciting when restaurant owners are able to expand instead of shut down.
One of the latest success stories is Estilo, created by the owners of Toast, the popular gastropub in the Near West End’s Village Shopping Center. Estilo, which is Spanish for style, is a few doors down from its older sibling in the former City Limit.
The menu is built upon the flavors of Central and South America. If that seems like a lot of ground to cover, it is. From Peruvian rotisserie to Puerto Rican mofungo, Estilo captures the diverse flavors of Latin America with a sampling of dishes from the vast region. Divided into street food, small and large plates, the menu has options that will work for most appetites and taste preferences. As an unadvertised bonus, everything on the menu is gluten-free.
On my first visit, I’m startled by the host almost hidden to the left of the entrance. My eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkened interior, which is beautifully designed and welcoming. Outdoor dining along a covered interior corridor is a little odd with its strip-mall ambiance, but a welcome opportunity to enjoy al fresco dining even on a rainy evening.
The exceedingly friendly staff shows varying knowledge of the menu and the cultures it represents. Considering that the menu labels its dishes’ countries of origin and admirably includes a glossary defining terms, it would be worthwhile to train the staff with deeper knowledge about the food. There’s no excuse for a waiter’s not knowing how to describe flan, a dessert so ubiquitous that it’s found across Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America. On the other hand, several wait staff clearly know both the menu’s content and inspiration.
Estilo’s food, from head chef Craig Smith, is well-prepared, consistent and flavorful. But if you’re expecting straightforward reproductions of classic dishes, you may be disappointed. “What’s the point in reproducing what everyone else does?” one server asks rhetorically. “We put our own spin on things.”
So if you crave a pungent garlicky mofungo like you had on your last visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, or the former Papa Ningo, you’re out of luck. Estilo’s version ($19) is much sweeter, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it takes some adjustment of expectations.
For street food, the tres salsas ($6) are a pleasingly diverse mix of flavors, from an avocado tomatillo salsa with a slight spicy kick, to an aji sauce studded with roasted pumpkin seeds. The papa rellena ($8) is a potato fritter filled with Estilo’s rotisserie chicken and cheese. Although my order could benefit from a little more time in the fryer, the flavors are classic comfort food with a little Latin flair.
I’m excited to be able to choose among the five seviches on the menu. Typical seviche is fish that’s “cooked” in citrus, and Estilo’s versions are inventive and playful, including a vegan option with oyster mushrooms ($10). Scallop jicama ($13) delivers generous portions of scallop that are a little overpowered by the sweet notes from brown sugar and mangos.
Of the small plates, the chifrijo ($11) is my favorite by far, with the Costa Rican classic side dish gallo pinto studded with crispy roasted pork and laced with lizano sauce — a sweet, spiced, tomato-based, condiment. The Peruvian rotisserie chicken ($14) is pricey considering how inexpensive and widely available it is around Richmond. Estilo’s version is fairly typical, although improved by the choice of two house-made salsas.
Among the entrees, the quinotto ($16) is a pleasant surprise. Quinoa replaces arborio rice to make this rich and creamy “risotto,” of which I’m compelled to steal bites from my dining companion’s plate when she isn’t looking.
For a menu and concept as ambitious as Estilo’s, it isn’t surprising that some dishes work better than others. Capturing more than an entire continent’s flavors in one kitchen is a daunting challenge. I’ve quickly found my favorite on the menu, however, and plan to make Estilo a regular stop when I’m in the neighborhood.
7021 Three Chopt Road
Monday-Thursday 11a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday 11a.m.-11 p.m.
Saturday 5-11 p.m.
Sunday 5-10 p.m.