If you weren’t looking for it, you would walk right past it. Perhaps owners Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter wanted it this way; unadorned and unassuming. Their talents, however, are opaque and heavily celebrated. Diners from coast to coast book in advance for a spot at the narrow restaurant one half flight above Houston Street. They wait patiently at the bar; they arrive early in order to score a seat. Whatever their approach; it is well worth it. Ignacio’s imaginative, Mediterranean inspired cooking and Thomas Carter’s expertly curated wine selections are incomparable on their own; together they are a match that is quite nearly impossible to beat. (My photos, on the other hand, leave much to be desired. I plan to return in daylight to make amends for my iphone’s inability to properly capture each plate.)
Each member of the service looks as if they would blend seamlessly into the trendy, gritty streets of the Lower East Side once outside of the restaurant. Inside, they exude professionalism, grace, and knowledge. They are ready to discuss each dish, the flavor of each ingredient within the dish, and the depths of each wine. During one of the most theatrical downpours on a recent Friday night, the restaurant lost not to the thunderstorm. Patrons arrived determinedly, endless demonstrations of ‘phew’ as they stepped inside; smiles of winning fortitude as they made their way to their tables. Some restaurants cannot hold a handle to a Manhattan downpour; Estela is not one of them.
The evening started with a wonderful glass of the Thenard, ‘Cellier aux Moines 1st cru,’ before the feast commenced. Ignacio’s small plates are composed of few, simple ingredients, and with inspiration hailing from Portugal and Italy, he heightens them to levels previously unsurpassed. The beef tartare with fried sunchoke served with two hearty slices of bread, one of Ignacio’s most celebrated of his imaginative combinations, was outstanding. The mussels escabeche was an excellent Spring menu addition, and each ingredient in the dish came together seamlessly. We could not help but order the much talked about burrata with salsa verde which was both smooth and piquant. Then we segued into the utterly light, springlike farro with chanterelles, asparagus, and morels. This was one of my favorites of the evening, although it is quite difficult to pick one over another. The whole plate was incredibly refreshing, light, and flavorful, flourished with spring herbs. It was the perfect mid-feast plate for a bit of palate refreshing. New York diners are now fully familiar with farro, an ingredient I had not tasted prior to my semester in Rome, but there are only a handful of restaurants that take this simple Italian grain to a level that is perfectly balanced between ‘worth ordering’ and ‘not too fussy.’
On to the razor clams. I now understand why every food critic and established dining professional is serial-ordering this incredibly seductive standout dish. I feel as though my words will not describe Ignacio’s razor clams quite reasonably enough; so I will simply say: go forth with the razor clams, return for the razor clams… maybe order two… And just when I thought I could not consume another bite: the ricotta dumplings. This is a dish unlike any that I have ever had before. I have not traveled to the moon and back, but I would venture a guess that Igancio’s velvety, rich, and wholly unique ricotta dumplings are one of the best creations to come out of a restaurant kitchen this year. We devoured the little babes hiding under thinly shaved mushrooms. Then we were incredibly full (can you believe it?) but had to order dessert anyway, just to see what creative concoction would come out of the kitchen. The spring fruit sorbet with meringue and crumble did not disappoint. It was both tart and smooth, a tuneful finale to a nectarous event. Ignacio is a unique talent. His dishes are ever-changing, but I hope that one day he stands still long enough to produce a never-ending series of cookbooks.