Ester, the restaurant and bar that has replaced The Ledge Kitchen and Drinks in the heart of Lower Mills’ village, opened quietly last Wednesday evening. The eatery is now open for dinner only as the new owners and managers methodically roll out a limited menu as they continue to hire and train staff.
The restaurant will eventually celebrate with a grand opening and offer a wider menu, including lunch. The big event will probably happen sometime after April’s chilled rains give way to May’s patio season. Until then, Team Ester is focused on getting off on the right foot. And that means putting a premium on highly-trained staff who make each “guest experience” a positive one.
“Our goal right now is we want to be sure we can provide and meet expectations,” says co-owner Eleanor Arpino, a longtime Lower Mills resident who will oversee management of Ester. “We’re really about the neighborhood, so we wanted to [open] quietly and under the radar. And we decided not to do the whole menu at once, but allow it to roll out in an orderly fashion and build on it as the staff became comfortable.”
The kitchen is under the command of 28 year-old Esteban Gallego, a Revere resident who is originally from Columbia. He worked for Arpino while she was in charge of operations at Davio’s, the celebrated high-end eatery in the Back Bay. For Gallego, who most recently worked as a sous chef for Hamersley’s Bistro in the South End, it’s a chance to put his own stamp on a menu that he calls “serious.”
“It’s hard to describe. I don’t like to call it comfort food. I would call it serious food. I think of it as clean and serious. It has to be done right,” says Gallego.
The menu is not fully rolled out, but initial offerings included Antonia’s Meatballs, Risotto with Spring Vegetables, Steak Frites and Salmon with Harissa, Chickpeas and Spiced Yogurt. Ester will also have a full children’s menu— a nod to Arpino’s keen understanding of the surrounding neighborhood.
Patrons of the Ledge will notice subtle differences throughout the space, but nothing earth-shattering. The color scheme and some furniture and accent pieces have changed. Half of the large-screen televisions are gone. A large room once used mainly for private functions has been connected to the main dining room with a second door near the front of the building, allowing for easier flow for patrons and staff. The room has already picked up a tongue-in-cheek monicker: They call it the “Milton room”, because it’s a bit quieter than the other dining room that shares space with the bar.
“There were no big structural changes besides opening up that doorway, but I think the place feels a little warmer, more put together,” explains Luther Pinckney, the manager who runs the front of the house and will be— for many folks— “the face” of Ester. Pinckney is a veteran of the hospitality industry— cutting his teeth in hotel management before turning to restaurants. Most recently, the Roxbury native has worked as the manager of Darryl’s Corner Bar and Kitchen.
Pinckney was very impressed by the customer response.
“We offered very limited seating, but guests were very reasonable,” said Pinckney. “They understood when they came to the door and the place was half-full, but we said, ‘We’re not seating anymore right now, but we’ll take care of you in a half-hour.’ They were responsive to that.
“The food was just phenomenal,” said Pinckney. “We had a limited menu, which was the best because every plate that came out was right on. The neighborhood was really excited and I met some fabulous people from all walks of life.”
Arpino, who is personally training the staff, says that the toughest challenge so far has been finding the right personnel.
“Some of it is because we have connections in the city and many people we’ve worked with are from Revere, East Boston, South End, Brighton. This seems like the other side of the planet to them and it is difficult to get here from there. But we’re so thrilled with the people we do have. We’ll need triple what we have now.”
For now, though, Arpino is putting the existing staff through rigorous paces. The soft opening last week was an important next step.
“It’s like anything else in life: You can practice all you want and do mock service, but it’s never the real thing like the actual event,” Arpino explained. “We didn’t want to overwhelm any of our staff and let them develop their groove, if you will. We all feel that it’s important from the very beginning we make it clear what our expectations are- but also we want them to know what their rights are and what they can expect as well. I think sometimes people neglect to do that and run into trouble down the road.”
Tony Paciulli, the president of Meetinghouse Bank, let Team Ester use his boardroom for staff trainings while the restaurant’s floors were sanded last month. Paciulli— and members of his staff —were among the first customers to sample Ester last Wednesday.
“The place looks great with some subtle changes and it’s not as loud,” said Paciulli. “I was very impressed with the ambience and the food they served was delicious. Everything was great.
“People may have lost track of the contribution of the Ledge to the community, but it’s just amazing. The role they’re playing will fill a huge void.”
Carlos Vargas, president of Vargas & Vargas Insurance on Washington Street, has been another early customer.
“I think they have a recipe for success there,” said Vargas. “You can get good food anywhere, but I think an awful lot of restaurant owners drop the ball when it comes to the service. I think it will set them apart.”