For the past few years, it seemed as though Uruguayan chef Ignacio Mattos was doomed to be one of those cooks who just couldn’t stay put. After spending five years focused on Italian fare at Il Buco, Mattos decamped to Isa in Williamsburg to turn out his own intriguing vision of eclectic Mediterranean food, only to be sacked just as the spot was gaining buzz in culinary circles. So it’s a relief that Mattos is cooking again at the brilliant new Estela in Nolita, where his status as co-owner means he’s likely to stick around this time.

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.

A reservation is not a bad idea, particularly as positive reviews continue to come in. 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. Another seafood option, raw scallops with avocado and yuzu, tops thin rounds of fresh, cool scallop with yuzu slices that mirror their shape, a lovely presentation and a rare instance where we’ve seen the Japanese citrus served fresh here in the States.

Calamari a la plancha, a typically Spanish dish, takes a bit of an Asian turn thanks to Mattos’ use of charred spring onions and thick, lightly bitter squid ink reminiscent of black bean sauce, which pair well with a fresh romesco. Whatever its origins, the calamari is irresistible – its rings of squid browned, yet tender to the bite. A fried egg served over gigante beans in a pool of harissa and topped with shavings of cured tuna registers as a grab bag of Southern Mediterranean flavors, 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.

The other half of Estela’s ownership is Thomas Carter, a wine guru and former sommelier for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, who has put together a roster of drinks that’s just as freewheeling as the food. Skip the cocktails (which are better at Pegu Club, down the street) and opt for Carter’s other selections, including several Spanish sherries. Though bottles of wine top out at $84, the list should please 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.

47 E. Houston St.
New York, NY 10012

(Photos: Estela)