Since opening in January 2012, Estrella has seen its star steadily rise on the Paso Robles restaurant scene.
As the creation of the same team behind the nearby Robert’s restaurant, Estrella also got to benefit from the interior design skills of co-owner Brenda Clouston.
Rich orange walls on one side of the dining room are accented by tall exposed brick walls on the other. Understated Old World artwork plays off dashes of bright colors throughout. And plush handmade chairs offer comfy seating around tables topped with ostrich leather.
Add to that the natural light let in by windows in the two-story ceiling, and you’ve got the welcoming ambiance of a worldly courtyard in what used to be a retail space.
Under the guidance of executive chef Ryan Swarthout (who also still manages the Robert’s kitchen) and chef de cuisine Travis Borba, Estrella’s gastronomic vision is “Latin Riviera cuisine.”
“Originally, the thought was to do a Mexican restaurant,” said Swarthout, “but I wanted to do something a little more different. With this concept, we can do Mexican, Spanish, South American, Mediterranean even Caribbean. It really keeps our options wide open, and Travis and I and the whole kitchen staff are constantly looking for inspirations — our travels, books, magazines, etc.”
The result is a playful combination of rustic and modern, familiar and adventurous.
Overall, the approach is one of “bright fresh flavors,” explained Swarthout. “We don’t do heavy sauces, and we want the spices here to dance on your tongue.”
However, that definitely doesn’t mean a fiery tango of mouth-burning heat with every bite. Though a couple dishes might bring a little tingle, the idea here is to develop balanced layers of flavor.
So far, some of Estrella’s most popular dishes are braised beef short rib enchiladas on house-made masa/flour tortillas, plantain-crusted Mahi-Mahi served with saffron Cuban rice, grilled Argentinean rib-eye with chimichurri sauce and purple potatoes, plus a recent special of Jamaican smoked pork ribs and chicken breast.
Other tempting items run the gamut from Oaxacan black bean soup to cactus and mushroom soup, carnitas salad to Yucatan grilled chicken salad, red snapper Veracruz to a Lamito Completo Torta — a slow-roasted beef sandwich with chipotle/tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, spicy citrus slaw and a sautéed egg.
Dessert choices might include margarita sorbet, churros rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with a spicy Mexican chocolate sauce, or Caribbean empanadas (a stuffed pastry akin to a turnover that can be savory or sweet) filled with bananas.
Estrella’s beer and wine selections continue its “Latin Riviera” approach. (Keep an eye out for upcoming winemaker dinners and beer-pairing events.)
A map of the beer list pinpoints Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, Jamaica and Brazil.
On the wine list, local producers of Spanish and Portuguese varietals such as tempranillo, albariño and verdelho are featured alongside malbecs from Argentina, cabernets from Chile, and garnachas from Spain.
Though Estrella’s cuisine echoes global influences, Swarthout emphasized that “we want to make sure we’re here for the locals, so we’ve kept the same reasonably priced philosophy that we have in place at Robert’s.”
That viewpoint is also reflected in the name of the restaurant — “Estrella” means “star” in Spanish, and locals will immediately recognize it as a word with numerous geographic references and strong historic ties to Paso Robles.