As a chef in New York, Ignacio Mattos did the near impossible when he and partner Thomas Carter opened Estela back in 2013: he created a restaurant that was built to last. In the intervening years, Estela, with its unabashed creativity and impossibly cool vibes, has become a New York institution – a term usually reserved for those places that have stuck around several decades – and Mattos has become one of the city’s most shining culinary stars.
Case in point: three years ago, President Barack Obama dined at Estela, and then last year, the restaurant made it onto the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, alongside hallowed institutions like L’Astrance in Paris and Mugaritz in San Sebastian – impressive feats for a small spot on Houston Street where you can pop in for mussels and a glass of rosé.
Mattos and Carter recently attempted to repeat Estela’s success twice over when they opened Café Altro Paradiso, a comfy Italian spot in SoHo, along with Flora Bar, a hip, seafood-centric concept in the Met Brauer on the Upper East Side. There were slips and stumbles. Some critics called Café Altro Paradiso a “plodding workhorse” compared to the “racehorse” that is Estela. But Mattos didn’t recoil or resent – he recalibrated. It’s this quality that makes him such a promising young empire builder.
We caught Mattos during lunch service at Café Altro Paradiso (where the fish sandwich is totally outstanding, by the way). Though he and Carter are known for their infatuation with natural wines, on Mattos’ hours off, he loves to sip easy-drinking brews like the Peeper from Maine Beer Company, or a classic saison. Here, he shares his thoughts on no longer being the underdog chef, his upcoming Estela cookbook, and why he is very into the idea of making beer out of perennial plants.
That’s what I look for in a beer – one with enough body, but with a body that is not intrusive.”
When you first sat down with Thomas to make the plan for Estela, what was your vision?
I wanted to create a fun and delicious place where you could come and eat, or just come for a drink. We didn’t want the experience to be so stiff. We wanted to strip down the many levels of service and create an atmosphere that was more edited and focused.
What about the food?
The food, the food, the food… with Estela I wanted to keep it as straight forward as it could be – bold and direct, but with an element of surprise. We wanted it to be a place where you could come and have a bunch of appetizers, or you could come and have a steak and peace out. I was also big on wanting to have classic items on the menu because I am the kind of guy who goes to the same place and orders the same thing. That’s how we got dishes like the beef tartare and the endive salad, which feel like part of the identity of the restaurant.
Your restaurants are known primarily for their wine — but can you tell me a little bit about the beer selection?
I think of beer like I think about food. It just has to feel right on the palate – it can’t be too overpowering. We have a small selection of about six, with varying bodies and structures, but the goal is for everyone to find something they like.
Which one is your favorite?
I love our saisons and pilsners, but my personal favorite is the Peeper from Maine Beer Company, which we might have just taken off the menu. This one is unbelievable – refreshing, crisp, with a well-rounded structure. That’s what I look for in a beer – one with enough body, but with a body that is not intrusive. This is why I don’t like hoppy beers.
Did you ever imagine the restaurant would resonate in quite the way that it did?
You have hopes, but no, I had no idea. You just put everything you have into it, and you see what happens. When we got on the 50 Best List I was a little worried, because that creates this whole other level of expectations, of people thinking you are something that you are not. I’ve always felt like I just do the best that I can, and I hope that people keep coming back.
When you started Estela, you were very much the underdog – a lesser- known chef who opened a restaurant that just instantly struck a cord. Now that you are more of a known entity, and you have three restaurants, is it weird no longer being the underdog?
I still see myself as an underdog. I am still doing the exact same thing that I was doing before I opened Estela. I go to the market, I dress the same way, I still have my cortado in the morning. I didn’t go into this wanting to have three restaurants. To not say I enjoy a certain recognition would be bullshit, but it’s not my focus. I still feel like I just need to put my head down and stay focused on what it is that I do.
You are originally from Uruguay – are there any local beers that you have a special attachment to?
Yes, there used to be this brand called Patricia that I have really fond memories of. It is a Pilsner style beer, and it has a really interesting taste. It was probably one of the first beers I ever had as a kid. I have these memories of seeing that cold glass on the table and just chugging it.
After the success of Estela, you underwent a period of totally recalibrating Café Altro Paradiso in response to some harsh criticism. What was that process like – realizing that the concept you had created wasn’t necessarily what people were looking for?
It was a great learning experience. We opened two spots at the same time – Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso – and I wanted to make the food close to how I grew up eating: clean, more focused, more traditional. I realized that people were not looking for that. The concept had to be more straightforward. Sometimes you start with an idea, and you just have to fine-tune certain elements. So that’s what we did – we made things a little rounder. I think we’re finally getting into our groove.
What are some of your favorite breweries to work with at the restaurants? Is there any kind of specialty Estela beer we can expect?
Maine Beer Company makes amazing beers – their style is just very mature and sharp. I would love to make a beer with lovage, just to annoy people. But I genuinely think lovage is a really interesting herb – very subtle. Maybe a beer brewed with lovage and nectarine for the summer?
Beer producers are getting really creative with the ingredients they have access to.”
Do you think beer pairs with food as naturally as wine does?
I think beer can be a lot more versatile. Last night I tried Folksbier, this brew from Travis Kauffman, who used to work with the Franks [who run Frankie’s 570 Spuntino and Prime Meats in New York]. I drank it with a hot dog. That beer with that hot dog – I was in heaven. Wine would have never worked in that situation. Having a keg of beer also just makes parties more fun.
You and Thomas were pioneers in promoting natural wine at Estela. Are there any innovations in the beer world that you’d like to shine a light on at your restaurants?
I am not a big fan of the idea of trends – I don’t really care about them. I just want to serve what feels right. What I will say is that I love that people are calling awareness to craftsmanship – that people are more interested in beers made with care and love. Beer producers are getting really creative with the ingredients they have access to, and it seems like everyone is trying to do a better job at making the process of making beer more natural. You can taste the difference.
Tell me about this Estela cookbook you have coming out.
It’s a very interesting process. With a restaurant, even once you open it, you still have the chance to work out the details. Same thing with food. You start with a dish and keep working everyday. But with a book, once you put it out and it is printed, that’s it! In terms of the content, we want to focus on making the food at Estela very accessible and simple. We don’t want people to have to overthink it. I want to empower people to cook for themselves and for friends, and we also want the book to just be fun to read.
Given the success of Estela, many restaurateurs would just think to duplicate that concept elsewhere, but you all have taken on the challenge of opening three totally different restaurants. Why take that more difficult route?
That is a question I ask myself every day. Why?! The answer is that going the easy route is not who we are. For us it is very important that we come to a neighborhood and try to provide an experience specific to that neighborhood and those guests. It is very humbling to be able to provide that. We try to create those very specific environments, each of which is unique in its own way. That is what fulfills me the most.