Stumbling upon a chance dinner at newly opened restaurant Estela was a little like falling into the arms of Don Draper. The unmarked doorway and dark, chic surroundings were mysterious and intriguing, much like the tall, dark and handsome stranger himself. Engaging with Estela through its food further perpetuated the mystery, as the flavors revealed little about its culinary origins. Blood sausage croquettes pointed to Spanish, yet Virginia ham was undeniably American. And there were times when I even tasted some Asian flavors. There was a familiar, comforting aspect about the food, as if you’ve had this dish before in another setting, but you can’t quite remember where and when. My takeaway was that Estela has no definitive roots and has instead embraced the culinary influences of the multiple cultures it has come into contact with. This absence of a definitive past shouldn’t matter, because, like Don’s work, the food speaks for itself.
The similarities between Don Draper and Estela end there, because the warm service and hospitality at Estela are nothing like Don’s cold, terse temperament. The restaurant is run by head chef Ignacio Mattos, formerly of Isa and Il Buco, and Thomas Carter, a former wine director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In a recent interview with Eater New York, the partners said that they wanted the restaurant to be a place “where people go to drink good wine and eat good food without having to behave too much,” and they’ve certainly achieved that. Estela was only into its fourth day when I dropped by for dinner, but I was very impressed by the congenial, knowledgeable staff and the smooth and prompt delivery of dishes to our table. I definitely didn’t sense any growing pains here.
The food is served tapas style to encourage sharing of many dishes, with sizes increasing further down the menu. Since Estela is so new, we were completely in the dark as to what to order, which was pretty liberating. We weren’t anchored to expectations of what was good or not and could judge our meal in a more objective way. We decided to order several small plates, including the raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel, the trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish, and the egg with gigante beans and cured tuna, as well as a larger dish of the pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens.
This was one of those rare dinner moments where every single dish that came out was truly well-executed. There were no hit-or-miss inconsistencies here. The ingredients used in each dish were minimal but to the point. I did notice that there was a common thread of utilizing citrus flavors to bring some lightness to the food. This recurring yuzu and citrus theme was a good example of the hard-to-place, global flavor profile that is a byproduct of Estela’s itinerant culinary lifestyle.
For instance, the raw scallops were reminiscent of the sashimi yuzu appetizers that are staples at Japanese restaurants, yet the fennel and red pepper accents threw you for a loop so that the dish couldn’t completely claim Asian origins.
The trout similarly had that Asian quality with its yuzu seasoning, but the fresh and seasonal fava beans and peas seemed very American farmers’ market to me. I thought the wispy ribbons of horseradish were a pretty brilliant and unique way of imparting some spice to a dish.
The egg with gigante beans and cured tuna was my favorite out of the small plates. I loved the warm and savory broth, and the combination of eggs, chunky beans and tuna was a highly satisfying and hearty one. The broth is light, more akin to a dashi soup than a thick stew, so it was perfect for the summer months.
I normally don’t seek out pork at a restaurant, because I find that it usually ends up occupying two extreme ends of the spectrum–dry, tasteless pork chop loins or extremely fatty, heavy belly pieces. The pork at Estela occupies a happy medium between the two. The meat was lovely and tender and rimmed with just a touch of fattiness to provide rich, juicy flavor. The carrots and almonds provided some nutty depth and nice texture, and the slightly bitter dandelion greens kept things from being overly heavy.
Desserts can be an afterthought at many places, but that wasn’t the case here. I thought the chocolate sherbet thoughtfully showcased its main ingredient in all sorts of lovely ways. You had a scoop that was decadently rich and fudge-like in nature, and another icy sherbet scoop that was a delightfully cool counter response to that. I loved the crunchiness of the hazelnuts and coffee beans and thought they provided some nice, light accents to a dish that could have been overly dense and rich.
Estela currently enjoys a somewhat anonymous existence in its unmarked address on E. Houston, but this won’t last for long. It’ll be in your best interest to drop by for a walk-in during its low-key phase before favorable word-of-mouth makes it impossible to score a table. I’m hoping to sneak in another order of the pork as well as the ricotta dumplings and anchovies on my next visit, hopefully before the onslaught of diners crowd me out because they want a piece of Estela’s globetrotting cuisine for themselves.
47 E. Houston St (between Mulberry and Mott)
New York, NY 10012