Estela falls into that appealing new class of restaurants that turn out fine-dining caliber fare, minus the upscale fussiness: no foams or tweezered microgreen garnishes, no thick draperies creating a moneyed hush. If anything, Estela feels most like a bar: the atmosphere is lively, the space dominated by the long wooden bar up front where walk-ins are invited to dine, while in back are booths for those with the foresight to reserve ahead.
It’s hard not to like this place, starting with a menu that groups dishes together in one list, unconstrained by the usual “appetizer” or “entree” categories. Mussels escabeche is the kind of dish that wins loyal customers, with creamy-bellied shellfish pickled with fennel and carrots and garnished with parsley, served atop olive-oil soaked toast – a sharing plate you won’t want to share. But one dish that’s often a favorite among diners is the beef tartare. Here, finely chopped raw meat is mixed with crunchy bits of fried sunchoke, a welcome variation on the classic recipe. The tartare is one of many examples of how Mattos’ cooking often seems both innovative and familiar at the same time. Though bottles of wine top out at $84, the list should please diehard vino nerds with a handpicked selection of pours from all around Europe (and one domestic option on our visit) including selections not typically found by the glass. It’s another way Estela manages to be both affordable and indulgent, comforting yet high-minded, and we’ll certainly raise our glass to this new Nolita favorite.