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Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter Team Up for Estela

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Carter and Mattos [Daniel Krieger]

At one point during a recent dinner at the new restaurant Uncle Boons, in Nolita, Thomas Carter flagged down one of the managers and asked where she had bought the trays the waiters were serving the cutlery from. Upon hearing they were from the Container Store and also on sale, Carter paused to serve himself another beer from our pitcher and a bit more laab, before declaring to the man next to him, "I'm seriously about to go buy all the ones that are left for the restaurant."

The man sitting beside him was the Uruguayan chef Ignacio Mattos, and the restaurant he was referring to was Estela, the project the two men have come together to open in the space that was formerly Nolita House. It will debut on June 18.

Estela represents the union of two restaurant players that, at first glance, don't seem like an obvious fit. Mattos — bearded, reticent, and fond of provocation — was last seen cooking tartar with flax seed soil and sunchoke purée out at Isa, on Wythe Avenue, until owner Taavo Somner unceremoniously relieved him of his position last spring. Carter — clean-shaven, bespectacled, and eloquent — used to wear suits every day while running the beverage program at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the bucolic and genteel fine dining destination thirty miles north of Manhattan.

Yet the project Mattos and Carter have devised in collaboration with Mark Connell, who owns Botanica downstairs and was the catalyst in bringing the chef and sommelier together, is exactly what they're both looking to operate.

Estela is a restaurant in the tradition of the tapas spots and caves à manger popular throughout Europe — places like Manfreds og Vin in Copenhagen, Le Verre Volé in Paris — where people go to drink good wine and eat good food without having to behave too much. They're the types of places where people also like to work because they can focus on their craft, share it with an enthusiastic audience, and not have to deal with "a lot of the other bullshit," as Carter describes it.

Estela, then, is the chance for all involved to let loose a little bit.

At Isa, Mattos used to serve a squid whole on the plate and set it atop a pool of beautiful, aggressively black ink. It wasn't for everyone. At Estela, he'll be doing calamari à la plancha with romesco and charred onions, cooked and presented in ways you've probably seen before. "I don't want us to think in terms of 'developing dishes' or anything like that," says Mattos of the way he's training his young and small kitchen to work. "These should just be plates of food, nurturing and relatively cheap, that remind you of the home-cooked meals you never experience anymore."

And so come dishes like a bowl of blood sausage with poached egg and crispy migas, the sort of thing you'd eat when jet-lagged in Barcelona and in the mood to be around the people of the city. Looking over an early version of the Estela menu during that Uncle Boons meal, Mattos even considered striking the shrimp salt from a burrata dish and the anchovies from a hanger steak preparation. "Maybe I won't list those garnishes on the menu and just have the waiters explain that neither of those things come out too aggressively in the dishes," he said as he considered the potential problem.

The food may aspire to the unpretentious and accessible ("We shouldn't be afraid for some things to even look ugly," says Mattos), but the actual product ends up revealing the chops of a chef who over the years has earned the admiration of people like Francis Mallmann, Alice Waters, and noted colleagues throughout the city. "Nacho has a palate and an eye that you don't see in most chefs," says Zuni Café owner Gilbert Pilgram, a longtime friend of Mattos. "He has the technique of a great chef and the taste of an artist." Those habits aren't exactly easy to shake, and Mattos's deft touch comes through at Estela in everything from the balanced use of acid to the way he can render a potentially murky and messy bowl as a sparse and elegant landscape.

[Daniel Krieger]

For Carter, one of the most respected sommeliers in the country, Estela is an opportunity to shorten the commute from his Williamsburg apartment, take off the tie, and serve the wines he wants to serve. The list, organized by subregion, reflects Carter's enthusiasm for winemakers who are farmers first, doing their work on the vineyard and not from the cellar. When asked about the most salient aspects of his approach, Carter offers that he's "especially interested in how microclimates affect wines, and the often drastic and compelling ways something can change from region to region." He points to the wines of the 3-hectare Weiser-Künstler estate in Mosel as an example, where "the winemakers are making wine every day and the product is linear but complex, with no oak treatment."

The list comes from a personal and studied place (Saveur's Helen Rosner once referred to Carter as "ragingly intelligent"), but similar to the way Mattos will operate in the kitchen, Carter isn't hell-bent on preaching his gospel to those who come through the doors of the new restaurant. "I should make clear that this is not a fuck-off wine list, and that I don't want to create an atmosphere where people feel like they need to know and talk about everything or, just as bad or worse, feel like they need to spend a lot of money to fit in here," he explains. "I'm a lot more interested in seeing what people want out of their night and just being able to nail it and show them a fun time."

Building Estela over the past few months has provided the team with its fair share of lessons. Carter's query about the cutlery trays may have been facetious, but it's the first time he and Mattos have put together a restaurant from the ground up. "We went and bought the chairs, we ordered the stools, we worked through the whole design process, we dealt with the painters and crappy plumber," says Carter, almost unable to conclude his enumeration of tasks as he tries to emphasize the team's investment in the process.


Beyond the nuts and bolts of the process, being partners in a restaurant for the first time has also shown the two men what it means to compromise. Carter and Mattos both know what they like, to put it gently, and sometimes their preferences don't line up. That phenomenon extends from the restaurant they're about to open to what they're going to order at dinner. Yet their relationship so far seems marked by a boisterousness and openness that make it so no one has to tiptoe around a subject. "It can get heated sometimes, of course, but we know there's a lot of respect and admiration between us," says Mattos of the working relationship. "The main idea is that we don't sit on anything that's bothering us, because that can kill you."

After Uncle Boons, Carter and Mattos checked in on the Estela space before turning in for the night. The dining room was beginning to take shape, with its utilitarian and vaguely nautical design elements warmed up by the dim lighting that had been installed earlier in the week. Carter began assembling tables throughout the floor to see how things might end up looking before the first service, while Mattos walked me over to the north side of the restaurant. We began talking about how the whole experience felt. Mattos briefly alluded to the peculiarities of the year he had just spent spent outside of a restaurant kitchen, and the strains that can put on a man with a two-year-old kid. As he spoke, he pulled open the massive windows of the restaurant, which look out onto Houston Street from one floor up and will remain open on the warmer nights of the year. "It's not bad, right?", he asked, nearly letting through a smile.

Stay tuned for more updates on Estela in the coming days.

· Estela [Official Site]
· All Coverage of Estela on Eater [~ENY~]


47 East Houston Street, Manhattan, NY 10012 (212) 219-7693 Visit Website


47 E Houston St, New York, NY 10012

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