Esti, Shoreditch, food review: ‘Like a steaming hot bath on a cold day’

‘Charming food’: A selection of Esti dishes. Photograph: courtesy Esti

What two nations spring to mind when I mention hospitality? I can wait. Okay, not that long.

Maybe something about the optimising cheering rays of the sun means the countries that pop up are mainly warm? Italy? Thailand? Greece? Australia?

If you said the last two, then you are correct, dear reader. Now imagine this overflow of friendliness, given shelter from the drab winds of March, in a liquor-shop-cum-theatre-cum-bar-cum-Soho-House-contender: TT Liquor.

Trundling past the gleaming bottles of booze, through a wood-panelled staircase, and up up up into the orangery.

A fetching L-shaped room festooned like the Cairns rainforest with ribbons of unfurling plants.

Here is the setting for Kostas Vais’s latest venture, a residency named Esti, which follows on from his food truck, The Three Little Pigs Souvlaki.

Esti’s menu has been refined using combination of Vais’s hospitality experience at home in Australia, his Greek heritage, and his love of East London.

Did I mention the stunning powerhouse venue is an old Victorian police station? Well, of course it is. This is Shoreditch after all.

All the above, plus ingredient-led (isn’t it all?), fire-focused (again not unusual) cooking of British seasonal produce could be a confusing fusion. But Vais’s easy Aussie manner and head chef Sal Galasso’s expert blending of southern hemisphere herbs and Greek classics proves this assumption dead wrong.

Charming food is the easiest way to put it. Charm is very rarely cheaply bought, never overstocked, and not easy to conjure, but when it’s right, it’s like a steaming hot bath on a cold day.

Take the rabbit pie, as my guest and I did with rapturous and slightly inappropriate sound effects. A soft starfish-like square of paper-thin butter pastry conceals pillowy meat and kalamata olives, and sits next to a pile of cream just waiting to dollop at your own discretion. A sweet savoury dish that almost brings a tear of joy.

The amalgamative cooking is present throughout. Deep- fried osso bucco is nothing like the Lombard stew we are used to. Veal shank is present, yes, but here it is enclosed in a shell of cornflakes (stay with me), boxed into a square, fried, and then left to rest on a puddle of scrumptiously thick avocado and feta sauce. What a way to begin an evening that does not once drop the culinary baton as it passes by our delighted faces.

The imaginative veal shank. Photograph: courtesy Esti

But I am gushing, bad form for a critic. Even the cocktail menu is an extension of Vais’s balmy humour, explaining that each is named after a place in his life. There are three and three alone. Such a selection asks you to try each – necessitates, dare I say.

The Marrickville Mauler (Sydney) should be saved for dessert. A crème de cacao, creamy experience, similar to frozen Baileys but posher than your nan could ever hope.

The Hinsdale (Chicago) is our cherry kicker, a play on the whiskey sour with luminous green chartreuse.

Last is LDN FAM (can you guess where that is from?), a piña colada for those of us over 25. Vodka, limoncello, honey, and pear puree replace the tacky coconut and rum of the PC. A vaguely medicinal long drink to sip as your eyes sparkle at the attractive yet subdued crowd around you. A swarm of slightly self-satisfied humans, knowing that they inhabit the inner circle of a restaurant secret, mentally banking every delicious detail for when Esti is on every foodie’s lips in the capital.

Nibbles are a selection of souvlaki to sustain you as you sip your selection of the liquid trio. Succulent perfection is coming your way, only mediated by the size of the flaky pita creations (too small, of course).

Sadly, the braised octopus ran out just before we asked for it but given Galasso and his team’s ability with the flame I would imagine it divine.

Fish on the coals is a slab of Cornish sea bream, although this changes daily. A silken, slivering, expertly cooked sea citizen, bush tomato chutney, and spidery greens spread over the fleshy offering.

Instead of the octopus, an equally wet smoked aubergine is offered, tasting like a concord between the worlds of water and fire. Pomegranate molasses, tahini, kale, and fried peanuts bring an almost Thai feel to this dish. The complexity of smoke on the limpid body of the temperature-pummelled vegetable makes for a respectable vegetarian option.

There are BBQ pork chops to share (as everything is designed to be) and lamb ribs all carrying on the trial-by-fire theme.

Desserts, like the cocktails, come dans trois.

Ice cream, although enticing with olive oil parfait, seems too simple in comparison to the other options.

One of these is Vais’s mother’s recipe of galaktoboureko, reminding us of Esti’s lineage. A custard layer enclosed with thin witch’s fingers of filo pastry, a cradling dish singing of a mother’s love through food.

The soul Cretan pie is like a sweet souvlaki dosed in yogurt (Greek, of course), walnuts, honey, and a freckle of cinnamon.

Sweets are something seemingly hit hard by the cost-of-living crisis nowadays, but no such case here.

We finish the evening lolling back on the hard mahogany chairs and gazing over the expanse of dark brown wooden table with a glass of Muscat from the volcanic island of Lemnos. In our case, with added warm nostalgia about Soho in the 90s from Vais.

Back to reality with a bump. Eating out is something that, the second economic shadows gather, is relegated to special occasions. Esti is very much that, an exception – unless you run a hedge fund.

The sharing mains fall between £16-26 and three between the two of us wasn’t quite enough to fully satiate. Add £5.50 for one souvlaki, on top of desserts and starting nibbles, and this rounds up to an expensive evening out for those of us outside the one per cent.

But there is an urgency to this, with Esti’s residency lasting only six months.

Maybe resuscitate a birthday that has long passed? Celebrate a triviality? Caught the Wednesday recycling lorry, did you? Well, off to Esti it is!

Despite the plan for a permanent home in the future, the combination of the French-postered dark emerald den and utterly lovely food means the experience is worth every penny  – as long as you can justify the expense.

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