East End Eats: Little Kitchen, Big Flavors

An atmosphere of jollity and camaraderie
Frank Burnes and Kevin Truex enjoyed the wine and dinner at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor on Sunday. Morgan McGivern

Estia’s Little Kitchen
1615 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike
Sag Harbor
Monday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. 
and 5-9 p.m.

There is something about a small, cozy restaurant that creates an atmosphere of jollity and camaraderie. Estia’s Little Kitchen is such a place. 

If you’ve ever driven by around breakfast or lunchtime, you would see a massive number of cars lined up, some parked willy-nilly. It’s hard to believe that this many people can fit into this tiny spot. In Italy, it would be called a trattoria, in France a bistro, in Greece a taverna. It’s not a cafe, and you certainly can’t call it a diner, especially if you’ve had the good fortune to dine there in the evenings.

Estia’s Little Kitchen is located on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike and consists of one small dining room with about 10 tables, some bar stools, and another even smaller dining room off to the left. What used to be a bunch of weeds and grass in the back has been transformed into an oasis with a big garden and a grassy seating area with tables and a lot of charm. The interior is painted a pale yellow, and the simplicity of furnishings belies what is about to appear on your plate.

While this place is best known for its breakfasts and lunches with a Mexican accent, it transforms in the evenings with a somewhat more sophisticated atmosphere and more diverse menu. The tables don’t just have a perfunctory sprig of chrysanthemum or single rosebud, they have pretty bouquets in Mason jars: purple dahlias and white cosmos, no doubt picked from the garden in back.

I visited Estia’s Little Kitchen recently with some fellow year-rounders who had been for breakfast before, but not dinner. We began our meal with tortilla soup, crab tostadas, and adobo pork nachos. We were told the soup was spicy, and we all agreed it was just spicy enough. It was full of flavor from peppers and tomatoes, pureed and served with crisp, fried tortilla strips, cubes of ripe avocado, and bits of cotija cheese. 

The crab tostadas were two crunchy tortillas on top of refried black beans, topped with a mayo-y crab salad. The coleslaw served alongside was full of Napa cabbage, carrots, red onions, cilantro, and bright bits of pickled red peppers. This dish was delicious, but we all agreed that the cold bean puree on the bottom was superfluous. 

The adobo pork nachos were insanely good and a big enough portion to be an entree. The tortilla chips were freshly fried, topped with just enough jack cheese, and smothered with chunks of tender, flavorful pork. The salsa on top was perfectly balanced, spicy and tasting of roasted tomatoes. The occasional bit of chorizo gave it an extra kick, and it was topped with excellent guacamole and sour cream.

For entrees we had the shredded pork burrito, crisp California chicken, and crab cakes. The shredded pork burrito was very good, full of more tasty pork and served with a lighter slaw full of corn, carrots, avocado, diced tomatoes, and red onions. A cup of pico de gallo was served with it. 

The crisp chicken was indeed crispy, even with a generous topping of more salsa. It was a boned breast with the wing bone attached and was perfectly seasoned and juicy. The mashed potatoes served with it were a nice old-fashioned version, a little bit lumpy. The coleslaw served with the chicken seemed lighter and more citrusy than the previous slaws, which provided a nice contrast to the chicken and potatoes. 

The crab cakes were excellent — three good-sized sturdy ones with a crunchy panko breadcrumb crust and enough slaw to feed three people. A dollop of tartar sauce was on the side of the plate, but it was more fun to sample the two hot sauces on the table with the crab cakes, one a tart, creamy tomatillo, the other a peppery, vinegary tomato version. As we were passing our plates around for each of us to taste, one guest refused to surrender the burrito until his chicken dish came back. It was akin to a hostage-trading situation, which I took as an excellent reflection on the food!

The service on the night of our visit was very good. Our waitress, Julia, knew the menu well and agreed that our choice of wine was perfect with the dishes we had chosen. Prices at Estia’s Little Kitchen are moderate, especially for the quality and size of the portions. Starters, salads, and soups are $9 to $16, entrees are $17 to $32, and desserts are $9 to $12. There is no hard liquor, but there is a nice selection of beers and wine. And for those who are so inclined, the corkage fee for bringing your own bottle is a ridiculously reasonable $20, which is about a third of what you would pay at other restaurants.

For desserts (which are all made in house) we tried the tres leches cake, chocolate flan cake, and carrot cake. 

The carrot cake was definitely the star of the three — moist, nutty, just sweet enough, and with an excellent cream cheese icing.

The tres leches cake was pretty good, a pale white cake with a cinnamon dappled whipped cream topping and a few berries on the side. We couldn’t quite detect the traditional moistening layer of sweetened condensed and evaporated milk. The chocolate flan cake was okay. It was a bit dry on the bottom, and the flan layer was slightly overdone and lacked the caramel syrup one expects swimming on the plate.

After our meal we took a peek into the back dining room. Only one couple was there, and they looked a bit startled to see us. “This is our private room,” they said, and laughed. We all agreed it was a fine and cozy place.

Colin Ambrose, the chef-owner, has been in the restaurant business on the East End for a long, long time, first with the original Estia’s in Amagansett. He is known for his vigorous support of organic farming and use of the freshest local ingredients, and it shows in everything he serves. Looking back, I wish we had sampled his famous homemade pasta or the potato-crusted flounder. Next time.

Bravo, Mr. Ambrose, your seemingly humble little restaurant on the turnpike packs a superb and flavorful punch. I wouldn’t call it a hidden treasure, just a treasure.