I walked past Estela at least three times, staring at my Google maps on my iphone trying to deceiver where this much hyped about, trendy restaurant could possibly be located on Houston between Mott and Mulberry. I had to be in the right place, right? The neon lights of dive bars were deceiving, as I began to question if the internet hadn’t informed me about a secret entrance way similar inside one of these grunge spots. Alas, I finally noticed the a dim light illuminating a menu which I had mistaken to be a sign for a delivery man at an unmarked apartment building. I opened the door and up the stairs and to the right, I entered into Estela.
The intimate narrow space seemed the size of a slightly larger than usual New York City one bedroom apartment. While cramped, the host stand, which is actually just a little shelf behind the door is run by two impeccably dressed men, quickly running around and controlling what would otherwise be an extremely chaotic situation. Reservations are recommended, but essentially required. Every seat is booked, including the bar which occupies the entire front space of the restaurant. Forget having room to stand, and I even felt awkward next to the door being a single person waiting for Amber’s arrival.
The host immediately offered to check my coat, and upon his return didn’t offer me a ticket to claim my jacket. He said that he remembers everything, and sure enough at the end of the night, my green army coat was returned quickly without a single question. Talk about efficiency.
Amber and I were seated at quite possibly the most awkward table I’ve ever seen at a restaurant. I seriously regret not having the wonderful waitress talk a picture of the two of us. We were seated at a rhombus shaped table, side by side on the bench facing out to the bar. After giggling about our romantic seating arrangement, we quickly moved onto the menu.
For the first time, we were relatively decisive when selecting both our drinks and our food options. Amber created her own favorite cocktail, a French 75 with vodka (instead of gin) and I ordered the Rosemary Society, a cocktail with gin, pear brandy, and of course, rosemary.
Cocktails at Estela are excellent, and you really can’t go wrong ordering any of their six suggested combinations. This one had a mild spice from the rosemary, balanced by the citrus from both the lemon and grapefruit. Such a cocktail masks the flavor of gin, that I traditionally despite, making this drink wonderful and refreshing.
The menu is configured for sharing, with a few small plates, numerous medium sized dishes and four large, entree sized portions. We decided to try one of the small plates; cod croquettes, three medium, and the ricotta dumplings from the large portion. Everything on the menu seems conventional, but. There’s always some unexpected twist to set these dishes apart from all other variations.
The waitress carefully paced our entire meal, realizing we were sharing every dish. She made sure only one dish appeared at a time, in an appropriate order. To me, this is one of the best qualities of the restaurant. So often I feel overwhelmed by numerous, disconnected plates teasing my plate with different flavors and temperatures that aren’t meant to co-mingle.
We began the meal with the Cod and Potato Croquettes.
At first glance, you already notice the plump croquettes have a flight, flakey crust. They’re lightly breaded and fried until crisp, containing the creamy cod and potato mixture. Unlike most cod croquettes I’ve encountered, the mixture inside isn’t pureed until smooth, but rather keeps some of the pieces of fish and potato in tact adding another element of texture. The light green sauce underneath has Mediterranean influence, a light yogurt sauce infused with herbs and a nice dose of red pepper flakes for a subtle and necessary kick.
The next dish, burrata with salsa verde and charred bread was a must over. Pete Wells’ dreamy description made this this dish a must order. Similar to his analysis, normally a high priced burrata dish wouldn’t appeal to me, but this dish was heavenly. I do have a fondness for burrata, placing it in a category above mozzarella, and even my beloved goat cheese. This dish kicked it into an entirely new hemisphere.
Okay, this dish does not photograph well, with the remains of the sauce leaving streaks on the rim of the perfectly designed bowl. The green sauce pools underneath a thick cut slice of charred bread, soaking up into ever crevice, while allowing for the integrity of the beautiful cheese to stay in tact. The smokey char from the almost burnt bread enhances the soft, seductive burrata. The mixture of lovage, sorrel, celery and other seasonal greens lingers after in an extremely subtle fashion, not to overwhelm the senses. It’s simple, but damn, if you like burrata (or any cheese for that matter), this dish is phenomenal.
Beef Tartare, and quite frankly any type of raw beef preparation, always catches my eye. I’m always fascinated to see how different restaurants interpret a seemingly simple dish, using the highest quality cuts of beef and make it something extraordinary. For the longest time, the preparation at Perla had been my favorite, but after my meal at Estela, this version wins by a long shot.
Instead of serving beef tartare with the traditional side of chips or crispy bread, fried sunchokes are folded into the raw meat. Sunchokes, an Israeli Artichoke, are super hot right now. When crispy they have an extremely similar flavor to roasted garlic, slightly sweet and bitter. I hardly missed the bread component and actually found this version to be extremely practical. Instead of trying to pile as much meat as possible onto a tiny surface, watching half the portion fall off and make a mess, they give you a spoon and you just dig in. Simple, clean and beyond delicious. The addition of capers throughout added a salty element, giving the dish even more balance.
Next, we moved to probably our least favorite dish of the evening. Immediately, we regretted not ordering the mussels instead of the quail.
The quail dish lacks any element of surprise, making it seem slightly bland after such exciting dishes. The protein is well cooked sitting on top of the spigarello, which is a variety of Broccoli. There’s nothing exciting about this.
We decided to order one large plate, the ricotta dumplings.
The dumplings are light and creamy, extremely similar to a gnudi preparation. The thinly shaved, raw mushrooms cover the dumplings, adding a simple element of texture without being a crunch. It enhances the flavor and gives a necessary break from the creamy, sweet, cheesy dumpling.
We decided to save room for dessert, which ended up being the best decision of the night. The waitress suggested the Panna Cotta. Normally, Amber and I wouldn’t select this type of dessert, but we decided it was a night to be a little adventurous.
Holy Sh*t. The best dish of the night and one of the best desserts I’ve ever encountered. I’m not a sweets girl, but this dish could make me a dessert fiend. The panna cotta is silky, seductive and perfect. A mixture of honey and vinegar sits on top of the custard, giving an acidic yet sweet element that’s difficult to describe. Simply put, this dessert is worth the trip alone.
Estela elevates the concept of small plates and sharing. The dishes are playful while still staying true to high quality ingredients and a surprising use of restraint. Some dishes are incredible, and some lack that ‘it’ factor. But nothing truly disappoints. The environment is adorable, intimate and the staff friendly and trendy. This place isn’t great for groups, but for a fun night with the girls or a date night, Estela will totally hit the spot and fill all of your needs. Good job, Pete Wells. This place is fabulous.
Estela – 47 East Houston Street – New York, NY
Location: Nolita, NY
Type: New American
Perfect For: Date Night, Girls’ Night Out, Impressing Foodies, Small Plates
Reservations: Recommended via RezBook
Favorite Dishes: Beef Tartare, Burrata, Panna Cotta, Cod Croquettes