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Jun 24, 2013 09:04 AM

Estela, a New Restaurant in Nolita

My dinner at Estela, a new restaurant in Nolita run by the former chef of Isa and a former wine director at Blue Hill, was one of the best I've had in recent memory. I describe Estela as the "Don Draper" of restaurants because it's hard to pin down its culinary origins. There was a familiar, comforting aspect about the food, as if you've had this dish before in another setting, but you can't quite remember where and when. My takeaway was that Estela has no definitive roots and has instead embraced the culinary influences of the multiple cultures it has come into contact with. This absence of a definitive past shouldn't matter, because, like Don's work, the food speaks for itself!

The food is served tapas style to encourage sharing of many dishes, with sizes increasing further down the menu. We decided to order several small plates, including the raw scallops with citrus and bronze fennel, the trout with fava, yuzu, and horseradish, and the egg with gigante beans and cured tuna, as well as a larger dish of the pork with carrots, Marcona almonds, and dandelion greens.

This was one of those rare dinner moments where every single dish that came out was truly well-executed. There were no hit-or-miss inconsistencies here. The ingredients used in each dish were minimal but to the point. I did notice that there was a common thread of utilizing citrus flavors to bring some lightness to the food. This recurring yuzu and citrus theme was a good example of the hard-to-place, global flavor profile that is a byproduct of Estela's itinerant culinary lifestyle.

For instance, the raw scallops were reminiscent of the sashimi yuzu appetizers that are staples at Japanese restaurants, yet the fennel and red pepper accents threw you for a loop so that the dish couldn't completely claim Asian origins.

The trout similarly had that Asian quality with its yuzu seasoning, but the fresh and seasonal fava beans and peas seemed very American farmers' market to me. I thought the wispy ribbons of horseradish were a pretty brilliant and unique way of imparting some spice to a dish.

The egg with gigante beans and cured tuna was my favorite out of the small plates. I loved the warm and savory broth, and the combination of eggs, chunky beans and tuna was a highly satisfying and hearty one. The broth is light, more akin to a dashi soup than a thick stew, so it was perfect for the summer months.

I normally don't seek out pork at a restaurant, because I find that it usually ends up occupying two extreme ends of the spectrum--dry, tasteless pork chop loins or extremely fatty, heavy belly pieces. The pork at Estela occupies a happy medium between the two. The meat was lovely and tender and rimmed with just a touch of fattiness to provide rich, juicy flavor. The carrots and almonds provided some nutty depth and nice texture, and the slightly bitter dandelion greens kept things from being overly heavy.

Desserts can be an afterthought at many places, but that wasn't the case here. I thought the chocolate sherbet thoughtfully showcased its main ingredient in all sorts of lovely ways. You had a scoop that was decadently rich and fudge-like in nature, and another icy sherbet scoop that was a delightfully cool counter response to that. I loved the crunchiness of the hazelnuts and coffee beans and thought they provided some nice, light accents to a dish that could have been overly dense and rich.

Estela currently enjoys a somewhat anonymous existence in its unmarked address on E. Houston, but this won't last for long. It’ll be in your best interest to drop by for a walk-in during its low-key phase before favorable word-of-mouth makes it impossible to score a table. I'm hoping to sneak in another order of the pork as well as the ricotta dumplings and anchovies on my next visit, hopefully before the onslaught of diners crowd me out because they want a piece of Estela's globetrotting cuisine for themselves.


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  1. I am going on Saturday night. I've been curious about this place since it opened around the corner from me. I also saw it was on Grub Street's Power Rankings ( and it got a good review from the NY Observer.

    Anyone else been more recently? Looking for recos.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Barcelonian

      I actually went again on Monday. The menu changed slightly since my last visit. Ignacio is really a master at proteins and delicate seafood. The steak and beef tartare were amazing, and so was the arctic char special. Really everything was so solid--the mussels on toast, the ricotta dumplings, both desserts (panna cotta and chocolate sherbet). I think the only thing I didn't really like was the burrata. And Thomas helps you choose wine that are very accessible, interesting and reasonably priced.

      From my two visits, my favorites dishes are the steak, the pork, the egg with gigante beans, the beef tartare and the raw scallops. But the ricotta dumplings and mussels aren't too far behind.

    2. Went to Estela this evening and had a mixed experience. We had 2 cocktails- the Jalisco and one of the gin cocktails-- both were great.

      Food wise-- 3 appys and 2 mains-- zucchini with roasted hazelnuts-- excellent, very refreshing and light. The steak tartar was delicious-- chopped very fine with capers and roasted/fried sunchokes which added a really nice crunch and salty component. Both appys were great and definitely would recommend. We also tried the octopus with tomato and potato and aoili. It was okay-- the octopus just wasn't as tender as hoped, the ends were nicely charred, but just a little chewier than would have liked. The tomatoes were sweet, but spearing cherry tomatoes in an aoili is a little challenging-- a little dull. Not bad, just wouldn't order again.

      Mains-- liked the ricotta dumplings- nice flavor. Don't know if I'd order again but was pleased with the texture and presentation. we also ordered the lamp chops (chop.. singular form). This was a disappointment-not the prep or flavor, but the tiny portion. It was $29 for 1 chop. 1 baby chop... who charges $29 for a baby lamp chop?? I was a bit egregious for the tiny portion size-- it was lovely (a little more done that I like-- more of a medium rare gal and it was medium/med well) and the eggplant/grilled scallion was lovely, but kind of offended at the tiny portion given one of the most expensive items on the menu. Boyfriend declared place dead to him based on that course...

      Overall, food was very nice, prepared with interesting ingredients, service was great (bartender waited on us), but admit a little tough to reconcile the baby lampchop for a main... so just order wisely or ask a few more questions on the portion size when ordering should you opt to go.

      1 Reply
      1. re: pennylane17

        I had a very similar experience. We had 3 apps - beef tartar was great, raw scallops were a bit too fishy for my taste, calamari was good, too.

        We ordered the pork as a main to share. It wasn't memorable and it was not a large portion. We figured 3 apps and a shared main would be enough food, but we both left thinking about getting pizza on the way home. Service was pleasant, but the portions for the price are just very small. I'd have to spend a lot there to leave full and I'd rather spend that kind of money on a better restaurant.

        I'd go back, but on someone else's dime.

      2. Well, the NYTimes discovered Estela. Two stars. And my intent was to get there soon and try it for myself. Now, go find a table....

        Ironically, the Times also had an interview with the chef in last week's Travel Section, discussing the food of Uruguay.

        1. Very nice dinner at Estela last night. I started with a Rosemary Society cocktail, about which I have nothing but good things to say, and moved on to a few glasses of the Domaine Du Cros ‘Lo Sang Del Païs’, which I liked a lot (but my companion didn't). We shared the mussels escabeche, the endive with walnuts, and the ricotta dumplings. All were very well-executed and left us wanting more, but I found the endive a bit ordinary, except for the nice bitter citrus oil with which it was dressed. I also couldn't figure out why the dumplings were so much more expensive than the other two dishes, when all three were pretty much the same size. I look forward to going back once the menu changes.

          1. We went this past Wednesday and loved it. We had the beef tartare, burrata, razor clams with horseradish, ricotta dumplings and the cod with parsnip, hon-shimeji mushrooms, and coriander butter. We shared a chocolate bourbon pudding for dessert.

            I thought everything was excellent. My partner's favorite was the burrata -- so much so that he debated ordering another for dessert -- whereas I thought the razor clams were the standout. It was hard to pick one dish over the other.

            Nice selection of burgundy on their wine list and the somm pointed us to a bigger, muscular bottle. I wish they'd fill in the list with some more Bordeaux and some American reds, though.

            All in all, I think it's really good, creative cooking. I can't think of anything quite like it right now and that's a high compliment.