‘It’s been building steam . . . . We get a lot of industry,” our waitress cooed, once we took our seats and asked how long the restaurant had been packed like this. Before settling in, we’d squeezed into the doorway and were placed on the wait list by an affable, iPad-wielding hostess, who offered no definitive timeframe or instructions other than gesturing toward the marble-topped bar that radiated under warm light, a thick ring of well-dressed patrons undulating like cilia around the bartenders.
Forty-five minutes later we found ourselves seated next to a power trio of celebrity chef and food-brand reps rollicking over the remains of a slightly tannic 1999 Sassella Rocce Rosse Nebbiolo. Industry or not, Estela seems to be attracting a knowledgeable clientele. A group of leather-clad flâneurs hovered by the front of the brick-walled space discussing the merits of meals at Northern California’s best restaurants.
“Saison is excellent, but it doesn’t reach the level of Meadowood,” one remarked.
“Sure, but have you been to Benu? Corey Lee is the man.”
This is the kind of barroom gossip you overhear when your chef is known for serving sardine skeletons and Jerusalem artichoke desserts. The chef in question, Ignacio Mattos, was last seen cooking at Isa in Williamsburg. Under his command, the original incarnation of that restaurant was a far-out nature walk of weirdness that proved incredibly engaging but was ultimately unsustainable. His unceremonious exodus at the behest of restaurateur Taavo Somer led to concern that the borough wouldn’t be able to sustain venues with progressive ambitions. Now in a narrow, elevated space on Houston Street, Mattos is unencumbered; you can taste it in his food.
Isa served an austere beef tartare with flax seed and smoked sunchokes. Here, the heap of tender meat bursts with brittle shards of the starchy tuber, capitalizing on the ingredients’ contrasting textures. There’s almost no need for the thick slices of Bien Cuit bread on the side, as good as they may be. In another dish, discs of lemon-marinated kohlrabi glisten under their blanket of Capra Sarda shavings. The Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese has a slight hay funkiness that complements the citrus that laces the snappy vegetable. Toasted hazelnuts and mint add depth and texture.
Perhaps the Uruguayan-born chef has an affinity for sheep. Fiore Sardo, another Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese, shows up again in a modest portion of ethereal ricotta dumplings in an onion-rich sauce shielded by slivers of raw white mushrooms. Fanned out like scales around the plate, the mushroom’s muted earthiness blossoms and tempers the sharp onions and salty, tangy cheese. Mattos’s signature rusticity is in full effect, though sometimes things get a bit too rough. Fingers of pork as pink as duck breast come topped with verdant claws of bitter dandelion greens, but the carrots are crunchy in a way that feels unfinished despite their buttery coating. Up front, the atmosphere can also suffer. Co-owner Mark Connell also owns Estela’s downstairs neighbor, the hipster bar Botanica, and one night when we ate dinner the smell of burning tobacco seeped in through the windows.
Estela has banked on the dynamic duo of a well-respected Williamsburg chef paired with an equally esteemed sommelier. Before Thomas Carter joined forces with Mattos, he ran the beverage program at Blue Hill Stone Barns. Channeling that rural background, the book—separated by subregion—emphasizes terroir and provides a frame of reference for how variations in climate, even within the same region, contribute to differences in taste. Bottle prices start in the $30 range and top off just shy of $1,000. Thankfully, some finds are to be had on the lower end of the spectrum, like a $45 bottle of Domaine Puzelat-Bonhomme “In Cot We Trust,” a naturally produced, cherry-heavy Malbec from the Loire Valley that typically retails for around $24.
Desserts feel tame in comparison to the rest of the menu, but what’s on offer is excellent. The seemingly simple panna cotta astonishes. The gelatin-based dessert exhibits the right amount of jiggle and a pure vanilla flavor, but ex–Blue Hill pastry chef Alex Grunert, who consulted on the sweets menu, improves the humble pudding with a sticky pool of honey, a splash of sweet Muscat vinegar, flecks of bee pollen, and a dusting of salt. A symbiotic relationship is formed between the creamy dessert and its sweet, sour, and savory accoutrements—familiar flavors through an unfamiliar lens.
More than anything, a sense of freedom pervades at Estela. Mattos and Carter are stretching their legs creatively while embracing an experience with a decidedly broader appeal. If only more small plates could pack such big flavors.