Entries in Ignacio Matos (2)



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.”

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Note: While I was composing this review, Eater posted that owner Taavo Somer had fired the whole kitchen staff at Isa. The former sous chef tweeted that they’re “Turning something special into another grilling, burger, pizza joint.” There was no sign anything was amiss when we dined there on Friday, but by this morning the restaurant was temporarily closed.

Anyhow: the review is nearly done, so here it is: an ode to the Isa that was.


If it seems that every restaurant these days is a copy of something else you’ve seen, I have a one-word retort: Isa. By turns wonderful and strange, it is the most remarkable restaurant I have visited in quite a while.

You’ll note I didn’t say best. Some of the food we tried didn’t quite hit the mark. But enough of it did, and none really resembled anything we’ve seen. Isa is special.

I’d love to go back, but it is quite the hike, about fifteen minutes’ walk from either of two Williamsburg subway stations (Marcy Avenue on the J/M/Z, or Bedford Avenue on the L). At least it takes reservations, unlike most of Brooklyn. Most nights, you can get in before 8pm without much trouble.

Isa (Estonian for “father”) is the brainchild of Taavo Somer, the design guru behind the restaurants Freemans and Peels, and the dive bar, The Rusty Knot, all in Manhattan.

“They must have chopped down a forest to build this place,” my girlfriend said. There’s wood everywhere, but it is all very comforting, welcoming, and stylish. We dined in the sun-drenched room on the corner lot at Wyeth and S. 2nd Street. Next door is an open kitchen with a wood-burning brick oven.

The chef, Ignacio Mattos, comes from Uruguay via the Italian restaurant Il Buco, where he was executive chef for five years. But he’s doing something completely different here, in a style that has been called “Primitive Modern,” with some apologies to the so-called New Nordic style seen at places like Acme and Frej.

The chef sat for a lengthy interview with Eater, and after reading it you’re still not sure what he is trying to do.

The menu, which changes frequently, is the model of economy, with nine starters and snacks ($7–17), two entrées ($28–29), and two desserts ($11). A three-course prix fixe is $55. If you order à la carte, bread (above left) costs $4 extra, but you should have some. Baked in house, it’s some of the best restaurant bread I’ve had in a while, and the butter is so soft it could be cream.

The menus themselves are so artistic that it’s worth reproducing them in full:


And the drinks menu too:


Don’t look for those menus on the website, isa.gg, the most useless restaurant website I’ve seen. The “.gg” top-level domain corresponds to Guernsey. What that has to do with Isa is beyond me.


We ordered à la carte. A salad ($14; above left) was a triumph of plating, with the ingredients arranged like a house of cards. Salads are often boring, but this one was pretty good, with peach, fennel, mulberry, and almond vinaigrette.

Pig tails ($10; above right) couldn’t have been more opposite, a symphony of cartilege and fat slathered in caramel. An appetizer is about as much of it as anyone could tolerate, but it really needs to come with warm towlettes, as it’s not a knife-and-fork type of dish.


The photo doesn’t give a good view of the Hanger Steak ($29; above left): there’s more of it than you can see. The steak itself was just fine, but nothing special. The interest chiefly came from a potato and marrow soup served inside a hollowed-out onion. At least, that’s what I thought it was.

I wouldn’t order the Mackeral again ($28; above right). There’s a decent amount of fish there, beneath little turnip discs, but it had a rather leaden flavor, partly redeemed by the slightest hint of smoke.


Well, given the news at the top of this post, that’s all she wrote for Isa, an intriguing if not-quite-perfect restaurant that seemed to have so much potential.

Isa (348 Wyeth Avenue at South Second Street, Williamsburg)