"We happen to be in a very conveniently located obscure location," says chef and co-owner Marshall Green.
Cafe Estelle also serves a stuffed French toast that I think might be a better homing device than any GPS tracker. When you cut into that thick slice of house-baked brioche, a perfectly sweet heart of hidden peaches and cream cheese is revealed. Dab it in warm maple syrup. Chase it with a savory nibble of handmade sausage scented with fennel and clove. Wash it down with fresh-squeezed OJ. Your car will learn the way back.
Of course, had all gone according to Plan A, Green, 27, and his fiancee, Kristin Mulvenna, 28, would still be saving money and banking experience to open a dream gastropub on the main drag near their home in South Philadelphia. Under that scenario, the glassed-in ground-floor space off the lobby of the Lofts at 444 would most likely have become a simple coffee shop serving stale Danish.
But sometimes Plan B sneaks up. A family contact reaches out. The temptation of unexpected opportunity is hard to resist. And voila! One of the city's best new bruncheries - leaping toward the head of a class including Sabrina's, Ida Mae's, the Morning Glory and Honey's - turns the Callowhill East Industrial Zone into a destination for crispy-edged buttermilk pancakes bursting with blueberries, and breakfast pizzas topped with house-cured pancetta, home fries, and fried eggs over easy. The parking's easy, too.
It isn't a fancy place, as is immediately apparent from the weekday counter service, and the much-frequented toy box with Mr. Potato Heads and play dough in the corner. But there's a comforting warmth to the space that suits this casual cafe just right, its industrial edges softened by gauzy blue curtains, Mulvenna's ever-smiling crew of servers, an old-time rhythm-and-blues soundtrack bopping through the air, and glass tabletops framing recipe cards snipped from vintage Better Homes and Gardens.
It's a sweet nod to a bygone era of good old home cooking, not to mention Estelle Green, the paternal grandmother who inspired the cafe's name, as well as Marshall's career at the stove.
Given his path through culinary school in Vermont and some of the city's better kitchens (Django, Ansill), it's not surprising that he feels compelled to choose his ingredients carefully and put some culinary effort into the menu. But it's still a shock to discover a place where the entrees are $10 or less, and to realize that everything from the breads to the bacon is made in-house. And for the most part, it's all done well.
The fresh brioche French toast, cleverly stuffed without any apparent seam, is certainly a brunch highlight. But Cafe Estelle's tender pancakes, rich with thick Lancaster buttermilk, cream and butter, may actually be among the best I've tasted in the city. The yeasty sticky buns, rolled around sweetened walnuts beneath a vanilla flow of milky icing, could become a dangerous addiction, too.
Green puts his homemade sausage to good use outside of breakfast, crumbling the meat over crisp flatbread pizzas at lunch with roasted oyster mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and pecorino. My favorite pizza, though, was the round topped with salty morsels of duck confit, oozing streams of Gorgonzola, bitter frisee, and fans of luscious pear poached in mulled cider.
That pear plays sweet counterpoint to salty meat again in the hearty spinach salad, which glistens with a bacon-fat dressing and big chunks of pork belly. For vegetarians, the elegant roasted-beet salad, tossed in a lemony beet vinaigrette with shaved fennel and soft nuggets of goat cheese, is just as satisfying.
The house-baked ciabatta bread looked too puffy for panini. But when pressed, it took on a toasty crisp that highlighted some startlingly good fillings: mesquite-smoked eye of round Wagyu beef with fig compote and smoked Gouda; and an amazingly tender Giannone air-chilled chicken breast roasted in aleppo pepper-spiced Buffalo sauce, then topped with celery- root slaw in Gorgonzola dolce remoulade.
Cafe Estelle dabbled for a few months with some intriguing dinner menus, but the nighttime crowds were too sparse for this out-of-the-way space to sustain. After tasting some of the kitchen's more entreelike lunch offerings, I can only hope dinner will be revisited someday. The large but pillowy potato gnocchi basked in a roasted-tomato sauce steeped with an unexpected twinge of anise and clove, and the earthy piquancy of capers. The braised chicken leg, meanwhile, a meltingly tender bird over a crock of white beans and beet greens, is possibly the best $8 entree in the city.
Green's cooking isn't quite flawless. The soups were flavorful but thin. One day's batch of sausage was too salty. The barbecued pork wore a soulfully deep smoke, but the chile-rubbed seasoning wasn't tangy enough to be labeled "Carolina"-style. The homemade ice creams churned on a cheap machine from Target were simply bad, as chewy as frozen taffy.
Those few misfires, though, were instantly forgiven when Cafe Estelle's peach pie landed before me. A wedge of ripe, thinly sliced fruit piled high, it was like eating late summer's golden sunshine inside a flaky double crust. And suddenly I was grateful: The dying art of pie wasn't lost just yet.
But it was just one of many unexpected revelations I discovered at this charming cafe, where an ambitious young couple is making the most of their location in the heart of convenient obscurity. Just follow the smoke signals, and come hungry.
Next Sunday, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews ¡Cuba! in Chestnut Hill. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.