In food-nerd circles, the question of authenticity is a loaded one. For example, mention Estelle's Southern Cuisine, a new South End restaurant, and many will ask, "But is it authentic Southern cuisine?" I wasn't born and raised in the South (or Taiwan, or Brazil, or Lebanon): who am I to judge? Better to ask, "Is it traditional?", i.e., following the cuisine's widely recognized foodways, a more academic, less controversial question, demanding no pretensions to authority. The more trenchant question, of course, is "Is it good?" In the case of Estelle's, the answers to these questions are, respectively, "Not my place to say," "Yes, but only loosely," and "Hell, yes."
For instance, the "Poe's dumplings" ($7.95) special appetizer looks like Chinese pan-fried dumplings stuffed with five kinds of spicy sausage resting on house-made ranch dressing. That won't evoke echoes of Macon, Georgia, the hometown of chef Brian Poe, who's abetted by executive chef Eric Gburski, but it is nonetheless delicious. Spicy smoked-chicken-liver deviled eggs ($3.95) are more Southern if not quite traditional, but the tiny serving (three small half-eggs) is under-seasoned and not very liverish. Fortunately, corn and sweet-potato chowder ($3.95 cup, $7.50 bowl) is sensational, with sweet vegetables contrasted beautifully with cream and quality bacon — hearty and heartwarming. Another winner is BBQ grilled steak ($7.95), sliced grilled flank under a smoky barbecue sauce, with crunch and fire supplied by batter-fried cherry tomatoes and pickled hot peppers. Northerners who have toured New Orleans may fondly recall eating fried-oyster po' boys, unaware of the city's equally venerable boiled-brisket version. Here, the brisket po' boy ($10.95) centers on thin, variously tender and crisp slices of slow-roasted beef with melty, house-smoked provolone and piquant pickled peppers, plus fine fries on the side: a superb sandwich.
Chef Goob's étouffée ($21.95) substitutes fatty braised-duck and andouille sausage for seafood in the classic thick Creole stew on rice, rich enough to induce the famed Southern post-prandial torpor. The mild Cajun spicing of cornmeal-crusted catfish ($19.95) is helped by pecan-parsley relish and excellent red beans and rice. But the accompanying garlic seared greens — decidedly un-Southern in that they are gently sautéed, not boiled into limp submission — should be contained in a separate dish, as their vinegary juices make the crust soggy. Buttermilk fried chicken ($17.95) suffers similarly from what I call the Poutine Problem: skillful deep-frying is undercut by applying sausage gravy in the kitchen. Get that gravy on the side, and this chicken becomes amazing: crunchy without, tender within, just a bit greasy, and nicely rounded out with mac 'n' cheese and more underdone greens. For once up North, cornbread ($3.25) isn't as sweet and cakey as dessert, more a savory shortbread, tall and fine-crumbed. (You can sweeten it with molasses butter.) Desserts include a chocolate peanut-butter pie ($6.95) that garners novelty and welcome lightness via the addition of bananas.