The Met really wanted another Estela. The subterranean space of the art institution’s new museum, the Met Breuer, needed a restaurant to go along with its contemporary exhibits, and Met director Thomas Campbell and special events officer Bronwyn Keenan asked for another version of Thomas Carter and Ignacio Mattos's first, very hip dining establishment. But it could never happen that way.
Carter and Mattos believe very much in restaurants that fill a neighborhood and react to the space. And to them, their new daytime cafe, Flora Coffee, and nighttime seafood and vegetable-heavy restaurant, Flora Bar, had to be different from Estela in order to fit in a museum on the Upper East Side.
It started with a ventilation issue. With less flexibility to use heat, Mattos is putting forward a menu that sprung from the idea of a raw oyster bar. Flora Bar is not a raw oyster bar, but it does serve oysters and a lobster crudo dish with shiso and mayo, which happens to be one of Mattos’ favorite things on the menu. And museums need daytime options. A slim menu of two sandwiches, two salads, and a slew of pastries are available pre-made at Flora Coffee for visitors, along with coffee that can be sipped on lounge chairs and patio seating. Mattos likes the chicken salad sandwich, while Carter likes the ham and butter one.
"As much as you can control it... it will be whatever the hell he wants."
"Yes, we have a connection from Estela in terms of the way we do things," Mattos says. "But the idea is that this becomes its own thing. We have a ground, but it’s just a little baby. It’s really hard. You can have all the expectations on your kid. But your kid is his own thing. As much as you can try to control it — you can take it to this school and surround it with these people — it will be whatever the hell he wants."
The space itself sits a floor below street level, with huge windows that let in the kind of daytime light that most basement restaurants lack. On Wednesday afternoon, Campbell stopped by to stay hi to the duo and even noted that some lights could be added to darken the windows, giving the dining room a more intimate feel at night. "The building dictates the feeling here, and the vernacular, and you can’t veer from it," Carter says. "It won’t physically allow you to design in another way. And if you do, you’ll look stupid."
It will be a while before the Floras fully find their identity, Mattos says. (He notes that their second restaurant Cafe Altro Paradiso is only now really finding itself, some seven months after opening.) And even though they want it to be a place for Upper East Siders to frequent, they realize that their edict was partly to bring their downtown chill to a neighborhood that’s notorious for lacking good but casual dining options. "People from downtown, they will have a casual place to hang out uptown," says Mattos. "And the people uptown can have a taste of downtown. We’re open." Check out the space and examples of menus below, and if you stop by, let us know what you think.