Ignacio Mattos is an eccentric chef to say the least. In fact, being eccentric is what garnered him so much attention last year at Isa in Williamsburg. Remember Isa? It was a quirky eatery designed and owned by Taavo Somer (Freeman’s Alley & Peels) with an oddball menu dreamed up by Ignacio Mattos, who once helmed the kitchen at il buco. But it was at Isa that he really turned heads, serving up dishes, like deep-fried sardine skeleton with olives and celery, or pickled chanterelles mingled with roasted pig’s ear under a tangle of arugula. With Mattos in the kitchen, Isa received a star from the New York Times, and more importantly, tons of attention for its curious, cutting edge cuisine. Then suddenly, Taavo Somer let go of the entire kitchen staff, including Mattos, changing the concept to casual Mediterranean.
That was just over a year ago, but Mattos is officially back on the New York dining scene with Estela, a new Nolita eatery, located along Houston Street just above a dive bar named Botanica. While it may seem like a strange location, the idea for this new wine bar cum restaurant came from Botanica’s owner, Mark Connell, who enlisted Mattos as the chef as well as Thomas Carter, who recently served as the beverage director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns — an impressive cast of characters to say the least, especially for this stretch of Houston.
Climb a flight of stairs and you’ll enter into a long, notably narrow dining room with a white marble-topped bar upfront, an exposed brick wall, and a mix of marble and wood two-top tables along the length of the room. It’s a simple, but cozy aesthetic that makes the restaurant feel like a neighborhood spot, and from the crowd I saw on a recent Wednesday night, the neighbors seems to agree. You may notice Thomas Carter busily floating around the room, advising guests on wines as well as a solid cocktail menu with a refreshing, tequila-based drink called the “Jalisco Daisy,” flavored with lime, cardamom, cane syrup and orange blossom, and a summery, sweet cocktail titled “Tuxedo #2” with Gin, white vermouth, Maraschino, bitters and absinthe. (If you don’t like your cocktails on the sweet side, I’d stick to the wine list. There are some interesting offerings by the glass.)
The focus of the kitchen is small plates with just a few, entree-sized plates to choose from (four to be exact), and most dishes seem to come out at random, which is fine as long as they keep coming. Be sure to order a bunch because they’re exactly that, small plates, all the better to sample the chef’s new repertoire. One glance at the menu and you’ll notice Mattos taking inspiration from all over the world: Mussels Escabeche on Toast as well as Octopus with Potatoes, Aioli and Pimenton both nodding to Spain, Tomato and Bread Soup with Taleggio and Basil taking cues from Italy. Especially from his native Uruguay. The result is often unexpected and very much his own; Blood Sausage turned into Croquettes with Borani (yogurt dip), and Whipped Cod served with Matzo (yes, matzo).
But the cooking is surprisingly more accessible than it was at Isa, which is good because let’s be honest, weird food, tasty or not, isn’t something you crave on a regular basis. And while there are unusual flavor combinations at Estela, the majority of the cooking is grounded in the tradition of one country or another. If you want something light, start with the Scallops, thinly sliced into delicate petals and plated with just as thinly sliced petals of grapefruit, flavored with nothing more than bronze fennel and a pinch of chile flakes. There’s a summery Zucchini Salad, mingled with roasted hazelnuts, mint and a sharp, sheep’s milk cheese that you don’t see on menu’s enough, called fossa cheese. It’s not an earth shattering dish by any means, but satisfying nonetheless. Or “Pickles,” a snack-sized plate of pickled Summer Beans and Cauliflower with a mound of spices to dip them in yourself. The octopus is also straightforward, reminiscent of Galician-style boiled octopus with potatoes, except here the potatoes are dabbed with a tangy aioli and the entire dish is showered with a smoky pimenton. Even better and much more interesting is the Calamari A La Plancha, arranged with Charred Onions, a tangy Romesco, and a black, briny puddle of squid ink that you’ll want to drag everything on the plate through before putting in your mouth.
My favorite dish on the menu is the Ricotta Dumplings, dreamy nibbles basking in a wondrously sweet, fresh corn broth of sorts with fresh basil and chives and cheese shaved over the top — another simple, but rewarding dish that makes you wonder how the chef became so suddenly restrained, and I don’t know, normal. In fact, the only dish that didn’t work was a complicated one. When you see”Steak” on a menu, it sets up expectations for a decent sized hunk of meat with a straightforward preparation. What came to the table was a teeny portion of oddly chewy steak, mingled with barley, onions and mustard, and sided by some seriously smoky eggplant, which all but obscured the uneventful meat.
However, desserts were off the hook. Pastry chef Alex Grunert (Blue Hill at Stone Barns) has created a beautiful specimen of a Panna Cotta, firm and flecked with vanilla and drizzled with honey as well as a bracing Blueberry Sorbet, showered with a dehydrated blueberry crumble and crowned with a grounding matcha (green tea) puree, all over a puddle of yogurt. Dehydrated blueberry crumble? Now, that sounds more like the Ignacio Mattos I’m more familiar with, but I can get used to the new normal at Estela.