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The Road to the 38: Brunch at Estela in New York City

Throughout the year, Restaurant Editor Bill Addison will travel the country to chronicle what's happening in America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.


A couple of weekends ago, during the annual James Beard Foundation Awards festivities, it seemed that every time I checked Twitter or Instagram a chef or food writer was posting about their meal at Estela. It was one of three New York hopefuls up for the year's Best New Restaurant prize (which ultimately went to Peche in New Orleans). Estela's Manhattan competition, glittery Betony in Midtown and red-sauce fantasy Carbone in Greenwich Village, both had much higher profiles. A 55-seat charmer housed in a former knitting factory on East Houston Street, Estela earned solid reviews after opening in June last year. Its renown kept building, though, on the strength of Uruguayan-born chef Ignacio Mattos's idiosyncratic cooking and the seductive beverage list assembled by co-owner Thomas Carter, previously the wine director of Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Visiting food pros were curious about the place. I know I was.

Steak and eggs. [Photo: Nick Solares]

Two other journalists and I climbed a stairway to Estela's narrow dining room, which hovers above street level (a famed dive bar, Botanica, resides below), for brunch. The trappings—marble and wood tabletops, globe-shaped pendant lighting, timeworn floorboards, a prominent bar—felt instantly familiar. We were seated at a table on a stretch of floor so slanted that we were leaning into one another. A round of Champagne evened us out, mentally at least.

As at dinner, the brunch menu is a concise list of mostly small-to-midsize plates meant for sharing. And as typical as that sounds, the ubiquity ends there. Mattos's cooking possesses a wonderfully unpredictable quality. It reflects a grab-bag approach to influences and inspirations that all comes together in a singular melting pot. His most arguably famous dish is burrata bathing in a pool of "salsa verde"—a juice-bar concoction of celery, cilantro, sorrel, and green garlic that in its earthiness transports the milky cheese back to its farm roots. It most closely resembles a dish from the New Nordic faction.

But then the creation that made us all keel in delight was a riff on bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches found in New York delis. Mattos layered avocado, pancetta, and a poached egg onto a Danish tea pastry called a tebirke (which the restaurant sources from the much-respected Brooklyn bakery Bien Cuit). Poppy seeds crunched between the teeth, the egg yolk oozed lasciviously, and a dousing of hot sauce neutralized the pastry’s sweetness. It outshined another locally inspired sandwich, a bialy with the proverbial smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and horseradish. Mattos is at his best when he’s thinking farther afield—like shaving dried cured black olives, resembling truffles, over slow-cooked cod and potatoes for just the right salty blast, or making a splurge out of workaday steak and eggs by subbing in rosy hunks of 28-day dry-aged ribeye.

Tiberke sandwich

Bialy

I'm guessing Mattos's cockeyed culinary prowess will only receive more and more attention.

Cod

Email Bill at bill@eater.com and follow him at @BillAddison.

Photography: Bill Addison, unless otherwise noted


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