New York can be difficult to appreciate. Its visitors may suffer its daily volume and call it too noisy, or get lost in its side streets and call it too big. In many ways, it’s by design: the great magic of the city is under the surface, behind closed doors.
At least this is how we feel when we walk into Estela.
Hidden in plain sight on one of the city’s busiest streets, Houston (don’t dare pronounce it like the city in Texas), it could be any other restaurant. A paper menu hangs behind glass to the left of the humble blue door, “estela” etched in gold in a simple sans serif font, and there’s a roll-up decorated with a painted elephant with a pentagram on its forehead to the right.
On the inside, quarters are cramped, the music is loud, and wine is flowing liberally. The greeting is about as warm as you could expect from a restaurant that notoriously declined one President’s credit card, but it’s just as well, what lies beyond these comely gatekeepers is magic.
The menu sprawls, traversing Spain, Morocco, Italy, Japan, China, and everywhere else, the way that only a “Modern American” restaurant can. The one dish you must get, though, is the endive salad. There’s a visual gag that executive chef and owner Ignacio Mattos pulls again and again, piling raw leaves or vegetables on top of an inevitably-delicious treasure beneath.
The dish appears to be a pile of damp petals, wetted with orange juice, but under is perhaps the best salad in the city, featuring crisp sourdough breadcrumbs, cubes of cow’s milk cheese coated in Barolo must, and a small tree’s worth of tender walnuts. It’s everything any salad could dream to be.
The ricotta dumplings sit beneath seven or eight coasters of mandolin-sliced mushroom caps which melt into the dumplings, and the fried arroz negro gets more and more exciting with every bite, as more pieces of squid are slowly revealed.
As one might expect from a restaurant with its eyes to the future, the wine list is mostly natural, and the various patron saints of biodynamics all make guest appearances here and there. Thomas Carter, the former beverage director at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, part owns the restaurant, and puts a stylistic stamp on the liquid offerings.
You could walk into Estela every day for two weeks and have a unique, and uniquely fulfilling, evening there every time - no matter how any of Chef Mattos’s dishes appear, like every great illusionist, there is always a prestige that surprises and delights.
If you’re in the city, reserve your table at Estela as soon as possible, lest you watch your chance at seeing real New York magic disappear.