Estela: The Best Little Restaurant
Eggs, beans, croutons, mojama, and harissa. Mojama is salt-cured tuna and it's divine.
I sat at the bar one night and met a friend for a glass of wine. I looked over the menu appreciatively. The two chefs sitting next to me (Aaron Sanchez and Jonathan Waxman) ordered food and I looked at it, at them, with envy. But that night was not my night for an expensive dinner. Then a new friend mentioned how good Estela was for brunch and I decided that in-between meal would be my entry point. Who doesn't like brunch?
On it's website Estela calls itself a "beverage-driven restaurant." The drinks might be good, but the food is why you should go. Located on a messy block of Houston Street it's unassuming almost to a fault (you'll walk right by it). It's one flight up from the street level and the slender waving black fabric sign would fail to catch even the most attentive eye. When you do find it, the short set of stairs will have you feeling like you're arriving at someone's apartment. Casual like that. We walked up the stairs.
Once inside we had our choice of seats. We chose the window. Then we looked over the menu to make our next choices. Sometimes I just hate making decisions. It's probably why I like tasting menus so much. My life: your hands.
Celery with grapefruit, pecorino, and hazelnuts. AKA Salad perfection.
The celery salad was perfection. Gorgeous to look at, tangy and lemony and buttery to eat, everything worked together in a wonderful crunch. It occurs to me we can make this at home: sliced celery, make sure it's super fresh and you include the leafy tops, chopped roasted hazelnuts, shaved pecorino cheese, white grapefruit wedges (don't skimp on these), lemon and olive oil. If you were eating this at lunchtime you could add anchovies, tuna in olive oil or just some fresh chickpeas.
There were two cheesy options on the menu that we lingered over. We finally settled on the whipped ricotta which turned out to be the one dish that failed. The serving was too big, it was too sweet and it needed a counterpoint, perhaps some thin crispy rye or maybe a grain (kamut?) below it with just a few dollops alongside it. Or a buckwheat pancake with the ricotta piled on top? It also needs mint. (Estela, please take note.) We didn't pick the burrata with salsa verde and charred bread and now of course I can't stop thinking about it. (Charred bread!)
Whipped ricotta with pineapple and coconut. Too sweet and too much of it.
We shared two main courses, an egg dish (shown at top) and baked cod with romesco. The egg dish was my favorite photo op of the morning. It was a perfectly balanced breakfast with giant white beans, cooked tomatoes, fresh parsley, spicy harissa and the mojama, salty, smoky shaved tuna, which reminded me of bonito flakes waving atop a piece of sushi. Underneath it all were hardened croutons that I left in the tomato broth to soften and draw in the egg yolk. I ate that last like it was the frosting rose on a cake.
Cod with romesco, aioli, and potatoes. We left the aioli on the side, which it really doesn't need.
Perfectly cooked fish is something to give pause, and admire, possibly because it is so easy to do wrong. The cod was a beauty. Tiny round potatoes sidled up next to the fish to add a salty, buttery bite. There were hazelnuts hiding in the romesco, and grated on top were concentrated flakes of Kalamata olives to round out the bite with a pungent wink. These are the tricks of a good restaurant: well-seasoned toppings, crunchy side elements, labor intensive sauces. We asked for the aioli on the side and didn't touch it. One sauce was plenty.
For the duration of the meal we kept the whipped ricotta bowl pushed to the side, even while the wait staff gently tugged at it, asking if they could take it away. The sweet mouthful helped to round out the complex tastes of the brunch, even if it was the wrong dish.