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Why can't more restaurants be like Estelle?

Think about it. The St. Paul newcomer is skillfully turning out slightly offbeat yet frequently appealing fare, much of it inspired by the culinary riches that chef/co-owner Jason Hansen encountered during an extended backpacking trip through Italy, Spain and Portugal. Prices stay south of $17, a minor miracle in today's mark-'em-up dining environment. The setting is casual, comfortable and stylish, and service staffers appear to be more than happy to be on the clock.

If that isn't a recipe for success, what is?

Estelle's beguiling ways can be encapsulated into a single, utterly captivating dish, which takes the everyday combination of chicken and rice and turns it into an adventure. It's one of many items on a concise menu where Hansen calls upon a variety of chile peppers to punch things up, with winning results. For $16.

The chicken — a choice of light (boneless breast) or dark (leg and thigh) — is cured in salt and red pepper flakes, leaving the abundant meat juicy and flavorful but allowing the skin to crisp nicely on the grill.

It's doused in a housemade hot sauce, a mix of Thai and Fresno chiles, fermented habaneros, red bell peppers and vinegar. That carefully calibrated combination forges a semi-miraculous heat that flares hot, burns bright, but doesn't linger.

Tame "Minnesota" hot, it's not. Besides, a splash of a basil-scented crème fraîche acts as a well-timed cooling agent. More of that sauce arrives tableside in tall, skinny bottles, and Hansen has discovered that there's a downside to popularity: customers, exercising their five-finger discount, are nabbing bottles. Who could blame them? Once I got a taste of that sauce, petty larceny was certainly a consideration. But let's keep the condiments where they belong, shall we?

One of Hansen's most admirable qualities is that he clearly respects tradition but isn't hampered by strict protocol.

Italian cooks residing in the great hereafter will no doubt want to kick off a cartwheel marathon when they learn that when Hansen makes arancini, he relies upon sushi rice rather than arborio or Carnaroli. He perfumes the risotto with saffron, forms the Parmesan-heavy rice into balls, stuffs them with fontina and fries them to crispy delicacy. The on-the-side flourish is a crazy (and crazy-good) pepperoni-tomato sauce.

"Rather than 'traditional,' we're more of an 'inspired-by' kitchen," said Hansen. "We like to take the things that inspire us about these cuisines and these cultures, and put our own twist on it."

Sold. Salt cod croquettes are another example. The cod is soaked in water for two days to desalinate it, then carefully poached in water. Potatoes are cooked in onions and garlic and mashed. The secret ingredient? An eggy pâté a choux.

All three — cod, potatoes, dough — are combined in equal measure, then rolled, battered with panko and fried until the exterior is tantalizingly crispy and golden and the interior is creamy and fluffy, with the cod flavor sneaking through in whispers rather than shouts. Don't miss them.

Another swell touch is a vividly flavorful tartar sauce, which is fashioned from egg-yolk-rich Duke's mayonnaise (a kitchen favorite), bread-and-butter pickles and tons of lemon juice. Perfect.

Other small-plate options shine. Kudos to the toasts embellished with firm, silvery sardines and pickled fennel. Another winning shareable is a plate of snappy shrimp sautéed in garlic and chiles, a more glamorous version of a Spanish dive-bar staple.

A hearty Spanish omelet — it's brimming with potatoes and butternut squash — could be a snoozer, but it's jazzed with a charred pepper-paprika sauce and a bracing crème fraîche. Oh, and I'm all in on the salads, generous piles of well-dressed greens tossed with all kinds of fresh, like-minded ingredients.

The menu's centerpiece

Hansen and chef de cuisine Nathel Anderson certainly have a knack for pasta-making, and they put that passion-driven skill set to very good use.

The spaghetti-like chitarra is long, thin-ish ropes of eggy noodles porous enough so that a smooth, well-seasoned tomato sauce clings to each strand. Fragrant basil and a dollop of radiantly fresh housemade ricotta are the finishing touches. That's it, and nothing more is required.

"It's just noodles, red sauce and cheese," said Hansen. "You have to do it right, because there's nothing to hide behind."

Trust me, they get it right. Ditto the embodiment of winter comfort food, a plate of rigatoni tossed with a sauce of red peppers, Calabrian chiles, cream and a hearty fennel-fortified sausage. Turns out, it's the favorite pasta dish of Hansen's father. Now it's mine.

It's a treat to see fideua — think "paella," with crisped-up noodles instead of rice — on a local menu, brimming with clams and shrimp sautéed in white wine, plenty of tarragon and echoes of smoky ham hock.

Count me a fan of the ruffle-edged creste di gallo (the shape alone makes it fun to eat) tossed in a clever jalapeño pesto that might suggest "blazing" but is barely, mildly hot. The pesto's color, a harbinger-of-spring green, is another reason to order.

Then there's expertly prepared ravioli, stuffed with sweet potatoes and that luscious ricotta, and topped with fried yams and Fresno chiles.

If there's a weakness, it's in a handful of sandwiches. Although entirely appropriate for this kind of neighborhood-friendly operation, they're not in the same league as the rest of the menu.

Small desserts, big impact

While seated in the cozy, animated setting, I convinced myself that the spirits of two of Estelle's predecessors — Napoleon's French Bakery and Heartland, both beloved St. Paul institutions in their day — are surely conferring blessings on their successor.

Bundling a small amount of spare cash with plenty of sweat equity, Hansen and business partner Peter Sebastian (he runs the front of the house) judiciously used paint, wallpaper and great-looking light fixtures to brighten the former Bottle Rocket. Of note is the up-close-and-personal kitchen counter, where diners have a front-row seat for observing Hansen, Anderson & Co. at work, and the tucked-away and appealingly cramped bar.

That's where a key component of the Estelle business plan — affordability — is more than evident.

"We don't want to be a once-a-month kind of place," said Hansen. "We want to be a twice-a-week place."

Done. Witness the bar menu's budget-pleasing handful of pintxo — the Basque word for "spike" — that land in the $2-to-$5 range.

Although they may appear uncomplicated, there's obviously a lot of thought — and skilled labor — behind each skewered effort. It could be briny white anchovies with tangy pickled pippara peppers and Spanish green olives. Or perhaps roasted Medjool dates (the oven's heat accentuating their sweet nature) stuffed with a feisty housemade chorizo, wrapped in smoky bacon and doused with a Calabrian chile-fueled marinara sauce.

Other delights include slices of battered-and-fried brioche topped with a pitch-perfect combination of pickled oranges and a savory chicken liver mousse, and a sweet-salty crostini layered with goat cheese, quince jam and caramelized onions.

Along these same less-is-best lines is a small-scale dessert with all kinds of hall-of-fame potential. Anderson, tapping expertise gleaned from a tenure at Patisserie 46, places her spin on the pasteis de nata, the ubiquitous Portuguese tart.

It's a bronzed, crispy excursion into delectably layered puff pasty that's enriched with a cinnamon- and vanilla-laced egg custard filling. This version tightwalks between decadence and restraint, a testament to Anderson's abilities. Another bonus: Each tart is just $3 a pop, and how great is that? A few bites of a bargain-priced dessert is often the ideal post-meal sweet spot.

Estelle inherited a soft-serve ice cream machine from a previous tenant, and it's proving to be quite the toy. Anderson is playfully steeping milk in Cinnamon Toast Crunch (a breakfast cereal trick made famous by pastry chef and cookbook author Christina Tosi), then using the mixture as the base for ice cream. With drizzles of chocolate and dulce de leche sauces, plus pops of the same cereal coated in chocolate and rolled in crushed almonds, the sundae is making a major winter comeback. Seriously, if Estelle had a walk-up window, half of Mac-Groveland would be lining up for soft-serve.

Hansen's former employers — Steven Brown of Tilia and St. Genevieve, Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, Max Thompson of nearby Stewart's — have obviously taught him well ("They were my university," he said.), and that mentorship is encouraging proof that, once again, good restaurants are incubators for more good restaurants. And good ideas.

"I love cooking French food, all that butter, cream and foie gras," said Hansen. "But everyone was opening French restaurants and Italian restaurants. I wanted to keep the door open on the cultures of Spain and Portugal, and show people what they're all about."