In a hypothetical Restaurant Olympics scenario, we’d nominate Estela to represent New York City. Instead of hurling discs like jumbo Ancient Grecians, the restaurant would show off raw scallops over flattened dates with a dab of uni in between. Rather than landing a double layout dismount with two twists on the uneven bars, Estela would turn an endive salad into food fit for a last meal on earth. And they’d do it all with seductive ease, since that’s exactly the way dinner happens in their dining room above Houston Street. Even after a decade of operation, Estela is one of the best restaurants New York has. It feels like it couldn’t exist anywhere else.
Like New York City, Estela is probably not the place for anyone who prefers hushed tones and wide open spaces. Estela’s quarters are tight and sultry. The room is loud enough for you to identify the song playing, but not so loud that people wouldn’t notice you singing along. Wine is consumed enthusiastically. And there’s a chance a restaurant owner or a reporter with a book deal will be sitting at the bar, squished next to someone visiting from SF who has been rightfully told Estela will convince them to break up with The Cloud and move to New York.
Estela calls itself a Modern American restaurant. That’s a sleek way of saying they blend cuisines to appeal to New Yorkers who want the best of everything. You’ll see French mother sauces, Cantonese condiments, and seaweed given equal airtime. Most of the dishes accentuate whatever is in season, which means you might find celeriac and cuttlefish in warm beurre blanc, or dried shrimp on top of Cara Cara orange wedges. There’s a riff on Valencian arroz negro that never comes off the menu, and, sometimes, a steak with taleggio sauce that sounds like it might be too rich but is in fact perfect. Thanks to meticulous attention to proportions, all of these dishes hit cohesively. Estela’s signature plating style also helps.
The chefs at Estela like to cover up essential components on the plate, prompting you to play hide-and-go-seek with your food. At first glance, some dishes will make you wonder whose sixth-grade earth science project you’re looking at. Did they seriously charge me $22 for what appears to be a molehill of leaves? Dig into your endive salad (an Estela classic) and you’ll uncover sourdough breadcrumbs, cubes of cow’s milk cheese coated in Barolo must, and more walnuts present than you’ll find in most trail mixes. Each endive cup gets splashed with a little bit of orange juice, and when you fill one with cheese and nuts, it’ll taste like you’re microdosing America’s most glamorous salad: nutty, salty, and citric all at once.
You could come here two weeks in a row and still not get bored of what you’re eating. Although you’d have to make a hard decision about which of Estela’s staples you want to order again and again—for us it’s always the beef tartare and endive salad—and which seasonal experiments to try for the first time. The new stuff consistently impresses us as much as the old standards do. Whenever you eat here, make sure you get a healthy mix from both categories.
We can’t imagine having dinner at Estela without talking about the food for 90% of the meal. In that sense, this restaurant is a particularly good destination for anyone who'd prefer to discuss squid ink and sea vegetables, rather than their dining companion's latest streaming habits. Come to Estela to see New York in motion in one restaurant setting. There’s no place quite like it.
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Beef Tartare With Elderberries & Sunchoke
This never leaves Estela’s menu. And, like the endive salad, you should order it every time you’re here. It’s made with bison, which explains why the meat tastes so lean. Each bite is intensely garlicky, with pops of elderberry and crunchy sunchoke chips in the mix. You’re going to freak out.
Fluke & Uni
Estela always has a couple of raw fish options, like cured fluke with dime-sized coins of uni layered underneath the fish. The fluke is served with green yuzu kosho and orange olive oil, which makes the whole taste floral and subtly spicy on the end. We’ve also had raw scallops over dates and uni, and the dish was so texturally perfect that our hearts hurt a little when it got taken off the menu. Don’t get too attached to your fish like we did, because whatever is on the menu will likely be great, too.
Endive, Walnuts, Anchovy, & Ubriaco Rosso
As we’ve already discussed, this pile of endives with nuts and cheese hiding beneath is America’s most glamorous salad. We are in love with it (anchovy dressing, orange zest, and all).
Celeriac & Cuttlefish
Even if your reaction to these two nouns together is “wtf,” trust us. You’ll be handsomely rewarded with celeriac cut as fine as angel hair pasta and chopped cuttlefish all in a warm beurre blanc sauce. When we ordered it, this buttery heap came with a little bit of sea spaghetti on top, which tasted like capers without so much salty attitude.
Fried Arroz Negro With Squid & Romesco
Meet another Estela banger that’s always available. This Spanish-inspired dish uses brown short-grain rice that gets crisped up so it tastes a little like popcorn. Estela doesn't blend nuts or bread into their romesco, which makes it a bit different than what you typically find. Instead, there are hazelnuts and squid hiding throughout, which will surprise you with their crunchy textures since everything is covered in ink, and it’s hard to tell what you're about to eat.
Ricotta Dumplings With Mushrooms & Pecorino Sardo
These dumplings will arrive at your table hidden under six or seven mushroom caps cut on a mandolin so they’re as thin as note cards. The dish looks like it’s cosplaying as an abstract flower, but it tastes like light and fluffy dumplings bathing in an intensely concentrated mushroom broth. A note for strategic ordering: This is one of the more filling dishes.
Steak With Taleggio & Sea Fennel
If you see this steak listed on the menu and you’re generally allured by delicious red meat, order away. The taleggio sauce eats a lot lighter than we thought it would, since it probably has more cream than it does funky-heavy cheese. We’d eat this cheese sauce with broccoli or maybe even an Apple product, but luckily things don’t need to come to that.
Estela has been serving a semi-bitter chocolate cake and panna cotta with vinegar and honey for years. We slightly prefer the chocolate cake (because that’s genetically who we are), but both are good.