Here you are at 8pm on a Monday, in a packed restaurant with an hour-and-a-half wait. The fashionably cookie-cutter decor—exposed brick, globe lights, hulking marble bar, you know the drill—suggests you’ve stumbled into another bustling rustic restaurant-cum-bar that’s not worth the wait; they’re as ubiquitous now as Citi Bikes.
Far less common are talents like Ignacio Mattos, the imaginative Uruguayan-born chef cooking in this Mediterranean-tinged spot. With this new venture, Mattos and partner Thomas Carter have slouched into a more relaxed posture than during previous stints, Carter as the elegant suit-sporting beverage director of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Mattos straining to sell his brilliant brand of “primitive modern” cooking to a Williamsburg crowd at Isa (regrettably sacked less than a year in).
Mattos has reined in his modernist tendencies at Estela, with an ever-changing, mostly small-plates menu that pivots from avant-garde toward intimate, bridging the gap between space-age Isa and the homey Italian he used to cook at Il Buco. But even if he’s tempered his vanguard streak, his primitive urges are alive and well.
A mountain of charred sweet leeks towers above two cherubic slices of juicy, crusty rib eye. The mineral-rich beef fronts this smoky ensemble—melting eggplant prolongs the meat’s lusciousness on the tongue, and anchovy fine-tunes its funky pitch. This is campfire cooking so seductive, you want to run to the kitchen and beg Mattos for the whole steak.
Base impulses prevail as you lick up the musky puddle of squid ink below charred calamari, with blackened baby onions and pimentón-laced romesco breathing smoke into the salty sea. Or when you suck the bones of moist, crisp roasted quail clean; it’s accompanied by a piece of toast slathered with a fig-anchovy-garlic jam that makes regular preserves seem like a banal joke.
Oozing egg yolk, hot harissa and salty shards of cured tuna comingle into an improbably balanced sauce for creamy gigante beans. Be brutish and drag your finger through it. This restaurant is dark; no one will judge.
Lest we forget about Mattos’s own esoteric rumblings, here comes beef tartare looking like a bowl of granola, with tart pickled elderberries, a musty baseline note from fish sauce and crunchy sunchoke chips. In another novel dish, a heap of shaved raw button mushrooms atop molten ricotta dumplings prompts the question, salad-bar bland or offbeat brilliant? As the heat from the pasta wilts that tame fungus into an intoxicatingly earthy shroud, you know the answer.
And the knee-bucklingly creamy panna cotta with honey—what are those nutty, floral bits scattered on top? Crystallized bee pollen, naturally.
It’s a decent problem for a restaurant when perfectly fine dishes—like ragged burrata on toast or crunchy kohlrabi with salty fossa cheese—can appear pedestrian compared with their esteemed colleagues. But Estela’s main headache is service that falters when the place is jammed (which it usually is). Aloof waiters, erratic pacing of courses and an occasional presumptuousness—no after-dinner drink before bringing the check?—can splash cold water on the warm buzz engendered by Mattos’s food.
Yet ultimately, that won’t keep you away when the relentlessly invigorating food hardly skips a beat. Hopefully, this time, Mattos is here to stay.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Quail, beef tartare, egg with gigante beans and cured tuna, ricotta dumplings, steak with eggplant and charred leeks, panna cotta
Price per person: $110 for three or four small plates, two entrées and a bottle of wine (sharing everything); the small plates aren’t skimpy, so you’ll leave full.
Vibe: Bring a date if you don’t mind the din, or come with some friends and have one too many; this is not a place that requires your best behavior.
Cocktail chatter: Estela isn’t the first tenant of 47 East Houston Street with a rocking vibe: This was the original location of the Knitting Factory.
Soundcheck: Fifty buzzed drinkers could create a racket anywhere, but in railroad-apartment-size Estela, decibels crowd the room.
By Daniel S. Meye