When Estela debuted in June, 2013, it was an instant hit. The bar and cafe occupied some rather louche real estate, a rickety, walk-up storefront on Houston just west of Bowery. Uruguayan-born chef Ignacio Mattos — who'd been unceremoniously canned from his previous gig at Isa, one year earlier — was now visible through Estela's kitchen door, enthusiastically making small, quirky dishes so intense one or two were enough. In fact, friends and I developed the habit of sneaking into the place around six in the evening, just before it got slammed. We'd sit at the bar and knock back a glass of wine and a vinegary mussels escabeche on toast, or a bright red beef tartare crunchy with sunchokes.
So, if you're Mattos and partner Thomas Carter, what do you do for an encore three years down the road? The answer is, you let the pendulum swing in a more conservative direction, highlighting bankable rather than groundbreaking. Hence, Cafe Altro Paradiso, which partly functions as a surprisingly conventional Italian restaurant. Seating around 90, the U-shaped, high-ceilinged room sits behind a sliver of park at Spring and 6th Avenue, a non-neighborhood whose main commercial denizens are an outsize Trump hotel condominium and the modernistic new God's Love We Deliver.
The room is handsome enough — chestnut-colored wood wainscoting with a creamy shade of white on the walls above, hung with gigantic tilted mirrors that reflect the room to infinity. Black-and-white photos by Leon Levinstein, mainly showing people's backsides, cluster on a wall near the bar, making the place feel lively and coldhearted simultaneously. The room sports industrial light fixtures overhead that, when you've had a few glasses of wine and your head lolls back, make the place seem like a bus depot. As befits a depot, the noise level is deafening.
My first meal was not inspiring. A few days after opening, the place was already mobbed, and a companion and I were seated at a bottleneck near the greeter's podium. It was like being in a small boat in rough seas, as we were jostled from every angle. What's more, a pair of short plates proved disappointing, more so since they seemed like Estela rejects: a puny octopus tentacle waving in a stubble of chickpeas and a beef carpaccio laid like a wrinkled hanky across a few slivers of potato chip. Modest in size, both dishes were priced at $18.
But on subsequent visits, the better selections fell into place like a well-dealt hand of cards. And, with aid from chef de cuisine Aidan O'Neal, Mattos' genius was once again on display. The best starters cover the plate like an abstract canvas. A fluke crudo ($16) intersperses limpid swatches of raw fish and caper berries, irrigated with pungent olive oil; burrata flattened like a schnitzel plays tag with cured lemon rind and market greens; and a simple pork sausage poises like a blimp fallen from the skies next to a hedge of cooked greens. Never has a homemade link tasted porkier!
Other apps are more facile, representing the servings of cold cuts and cheeses that make up much Italian antipasti. This is where restaurateurs rub their hands in glee — aside from time spent by the slicer and the cost of ingredients, turning out these small plates is pure profit. Nevertheless, the coppa (a neck-meat salumi, $13) is so flavorful and nicely marbled, it shouldn't be missed. "Is this made in-house?" I asked the waiter one evening, expecting a "yes" as I dabbed the grease from my lips. "No, it comes from Salumeria Biellese in Chelsea," was his forthright reply.
The menu is divided into three categories: starters, pastas, and mains, so a classic Italian three-course progression seems on the agenda. But the apps outnumber the combined total of noodles and entrees, so you wouldn't be out of line treating Paradiso as a short-dish wine bar, either, in the same vein as Estela. Four or five in number on a series of menus, the pastas ($19 to $27) are small for the price, making sharing difficult. Simply stuffed with scintillating ricotta, the half-moon ravioli are invariably a good choice. One evening they were sauced with verdant nettles, and on another occasion, stuffed instead with prosciutto, they shone in a broth with fresh favas. Garganelli, shaped like the trachea of a small animal, are deliciously tossed with dark-meat chicken and green olives ($22), while, best of all, firmly cooked spaghetti finds its perfect seasonal counterpart in a ramp pesto ($19).
Third courses are often tasty, but also present little selection. Best was a plate of calf's liver ($26), seared and served Venetian-style with caramelized onions and a tiny schmear of polenta. Worst was a chicken Milanese ($28) breaded with panko that was technically perfect, but practically flavorless. At one time, the menu boasted a roster of main course specials, one for every night of the week, including classics like bollito misto and beefsteak Florentine. No more! — Thus tilting the menu further in a tapas direction. No matter, grazing is the new eating, and Cafe Altro Paradiso is well advised to let you pass the football long or short where dinner is concerned.
One further note: Thomas Carter and wine director Megan Mina's wine list is brilliant, mainly Italian, with plenty of unusual red and white varietals, bold red blends, big-name Barolos and Brunellos, and some damn fine bargains in the $35 to $50 range. By-the-glass options are not such a good deal, so bring a friend or two and spring for a bottle.
Cost: Dinner for two, including two apps, two pastas, one shared main course, and one bottle of wine, with tax but not tip, $220
Sample dishes: Anchovy and parsley crostini, burrata with preserved lemon, garganelli with chicken and olive ragu, swordfish with salsa verde and potatoes
What to drink: Sparkling water, $3 per person; very short beer list; list of fussy cocktails, $15 each; and fantastic wine list at multiple price points
Bonus tip: To curtail costs, split a bottle of Da Mar prosecco ($40) and share three or four starters between two diners, and have a fine light meal for about $60 apiece, tax and tip included. This place ain’t cheap!