I’ve got mixed feelings about Estela, the new tapas-style restaurant from chef Ignacio Matos and beverage director Thomas Carter.
We last saw Matos at Isa, where he wowed audiences and critics (or most of them), but didn’t wow the owner, the world’s greatest poseur, Taavo Somer. Apparently unwilling to operate even one good restaurant, Somer fired Matos abruptly in the summer of 2012. Isa still exists, but is culinarily irrelevant, like all of Somer’s other places.
So it’s an understatement to say I was rooting for Estela to succeed. I didn’t love everything I tasted at Isa, but I loved a lot of it, and it mattered.
Alas, Estela is a let-down. The food is all pleasant enough and mostly pretty good. You won’t eat badly here. But most of it is beneath what Matos was trying to do at Isa. It was worth going out of your way to visit Isa. It’s worth dropping in at Estela if you’re in a few blocks’ radius.
It’s an even bigger come-down for Carter, who was beverage director at Blue Hill Stone Barns, and now serves a wine list that fits on a single page. (That is, unless there’s a larger list that the server neglected to show us.)
None of this is accidental. In a joint interview with Eater, Matos and Carter made their lower ambitions abundantly clear: “I don’t want us to think in terms of ‘developing dishes’ or anything like that,” says Mattos of the way he’s training his young and small kitchen to work. “These should just be plates of food, nurturing and relatively cheap, that remind you of the home-cooked meals you never experience anymore.”
Now, just to be clear: I’ve nothing against modest ambitions. Not every restaurant can be a culinary revelation. The city needs some restaurants like Estela. But the rapturous reviews on the blogs, and the early returns from a handful of pro critics, seem to me way overstated.
The simple one-sheet menu shows a list of five snacks ($5–13) and a list of sixteen tapas ($10–28) at the bottom. Typical of such places, you’re never really quite sure what, or how much, you’re getting.
Whatever it is, you’ll get it in a hurry. We walked in at 7:00pm, and by 7:30 three flights of tapas had been ordered, plated, and served. Although the restaurant was by no means full at that hour, they apparently don’t want you to linger here.
Scallop with zucchini, avocado, and yuzu ($16; above left) is a good crudo dish. Burrata with salsa verde (above right) is inoffensive, but at $15 perhaps not the best investment.
Blood sausage croquettes ($10; above left) promise more excitement than they deliver. But we liked the satisfying crunch of beef tartare with sunchoke ($15; above right).
The bread service (above left) came at this point, and I am not sure if it was by design, or if the server just hadn’t gotten around to delivering it sooner. After all, we were barely a quarter-hour into the meal.
Lamb sweetbreads ($17; above right) had the consistency of Chicken McNuggets, but that’s not an insult: it was arguably the evening’s most satisfying dish.
Only three desserts are offered (all $8), and they’re really just afterthoughts. Nothing wrong, but if the chef spent more than the proverbial 15 minutes dreaming them up, I’d be surprised. Chocolate sorbet with coffee and hazelnuts (above left) was too rich, a one-note bagatelle. Blueberry sorbet (above right) with yogurt and meringue was a bit better.
The service was attentive and mostly pretty good, but far too fast, and we had to ask for plates and silverware to be replaced mid-meal. I’m still not sure if the bread was delivered on time, or if we were shown the whole wine list. (Anyhow, we drank cocktails, which is not a bad way to go.)
The narrow dining room seats 55, although it actually feels more intimate than that. It’s a cute, narrow space, but the look is familiar to anyone who dines downtown a lot, with exposed wood and low-hanging light fixtures. In the bones of this space, perhaps a more ambitious restaurant will rise.
Estela (47 E. Houston Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets, NoLIta)
Food: Modern Spanish tapas
Service: Attentive but hurried
Ambiance: A narrow downtown dining room, of the sort you’ve seen before