James Trees could have opened his first restaurant anywhere but he chose Downtown. The former chef de cuisine at Fig and corporate chef for Superba Bread left Los Angeles to return to his native city, bringing the vision for Esther’s Kitchen with him.
The goal was simple: keep things fresh and local, and make all the pasta and bread in-house every morning. It’s the kind of restaurant you’d see on every corner in LA, but here? Trees saw a gap and decided to fill it. As such, since its January opening, Esther’s Kitchen has been an instant hit.
If you judge an Italian restaurant from the bread, then a giant loaf of sourdough will impress from the start. Complement it with anchovy garlic butter ($6), a thick and creamy paste that tastes like the best Caesar salad dressing you’ve ever had. Though it’s nontraditional, the yellowtail crudo with market citrus—grapefruit during my visit—fennel, basil and chili oil ($15) is a refreshing way to prep your palate before the heavier items elsewhere on the menu.
If you’ve ever had homemade polenta, you know the comfort potential of this staple. Esther’s, named after Trees’ aunt, combines hearty mushrooms, savory truffle butter and sherry for a decadent, must-order vegetarian dish. Make sure to save some bread so you can get every last umami-laden morsel. And the restaurant’s take on the classic cacio e pepe ($15) is made with chitarra—an egg noodle similar to spaghetti but sliced with a guitar-like pasta cutter—then tossed with pecorino and tellicherry peppercorn.
Esther’s doesn’t lack in creativity, either. The most farm-to-table pasta on the menu is easily the ricotta gnudi ($15), which doesn’t involve any form of noodle at all. Cheese dumplings are the fluffy stars of this rich yet balanced dish, accompanied by whole beets and an herbaceous pistachio pesto. And if pasta isn’t your style, there’s an assortment of pizzas and entrees, like the limited-daily porchetta ($25).
No matter what you order, one thing is certain: The attention to detail is noticeable in every dish. With plans for a new brunch menu, and a backyard patio opening shortly, Trees is just getting started.
ESTHER’S KITCHEN 1130 S. Casino Center Blvd., 702-570-7864. Tuesday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m.