Beef tartar. [Photographs: Eunice Choi]

Estela

47 East Houston Street, New York NY 10012 (b/n Mott and Mulberry; map); 212-219-7693; estelanyc.com
Service: Friendly, competent, if not yet practiced
Setting: Narrow, close-quarters space dominated by its front bar
Must-Haves: Beef tartare, mussels escabeche
Cost: Plates up to $28; perhaps $40/head for food
Recommendation: Recommended for drinks, intelligently conceived menu

I'm still not entirely sure what rockets a restaurant to popularity; but whatever that Factor X is, Estela has it in spades.

At a phase of the summer when many Manhattan streets empty out, Estela is the season's tough reservation, standing room two or three deep at the bar every time I've been. (And in Estela, three deep at the bar means you're certainly at capacity.) It's not in a particularly well-trafficked neighborhood, except in the traffic sense, on East Houston sitting atop the awesomely divey Botanica— the kind of low-lit, saggy-couched bar I'm glad still has a home in Manhattan. As I waited for my dining companion one night and watched couple after group after couple ascend the stairs to Estela, I wondered: How did you hear about this place? What brings you here?

Not because it's unworthy of the attention, in the least. If you're looking for reasons to visit, I can give you quite a few.

Valuable lesson.

I'd return any day, say, for a Valuable Lesson ($13; rum, Campari, Madeira) and the beef tartare and sunchoke ($15). The cocktail list is brief but focused, all with classic profiles, some original, others rediscovered. That Valuable Lesson did indeed teach me one, that I should've considered rum and Madeira as bedfellows long ago. The lesson of the De la Louisiane? That I might actually prefer it—rye, bitters, and absinthe, but rounded out with sweet vermouth and Bénédictine—to its close cousin the Sazerac.

In fact, if Estela ever calms down, it's the bar I'd head back to, as it'd be an ideal place to linger. The "small plates" format (though not all of Estela's are exactly small) has its fans and detractors, but for a certain kind of dining—a night when I'm intending drinks first, food second—it makes sense.

I'd spend a while with the wine list, too, the work of co-owner Thomas Carter, previously of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which manages to be erudite without losing a sense of value; I was too preoccupied enjoying the Domaine Regnier Saumur-Champigny to remember that it was only $32 a bottle. (Though it's probably all for the best that I didn't, as I might've ordered another.)

The question might be why one would go to Estela over any other snug small-plates bar-restaurant these days. And if half that answer is in the drinks, half too is in the edibles. Chef Ignacio Mattos was most recently at Isa, the aggressively experimental Williamsburg spot that won acclaim from some critics and head-scratching from others. In my meals at Isa, I felt 80% confused, 20% dazzled. At Estela? That's flipped, and then some. The moments of brilliance only occasionally veer away from that.

The Spanish excel at food to eat while drinking, and plenty of Mattos's best dishes bend toward tapas. I could've eaten three orders of the blood sausage croquettes ($10), its characteristic flavor neither masked nor overplayed. And I was a little too possessive of the mussels escabeche ($12) that my table had intended as a shared plate. Each mussel is showcased as a plump, perfect thing, atop toast soaked in aioli from above, oil and vinegar from below.

Heirloom tomatoes with figs, wax beans, and basil ($15) were a moment of fleeting summer pleasures, lush figs and perfect tomatoes; if they're only here for a moment, so be it. I'd miss the zucchini dish with hazelnuts, mint, and fossa cheese that was on the menu a few weeks ago were it not replaced with an excellent kohlrabi ($13) plate in the same getup.

Whipped cod.

The term "matzoh" in Mattos's anchovies with matzoh—replaced with whipped cod since my first visit—is a bit of an undersell; I've never had matzoh as tasty as this flatbread, but in such a fine bite of food I'm not inclined to complain. I love a good beef tartare, but don't usually spoon up bite after bite as I did with Estela's version ($15), lightly bound with bits of fried sunchoke as an appealing crunch. And the egg with gigante beans, cured tuna, and harissa ($16) nailed every element therein.

The ricotta dumplings ($22) weren't quite on point at a first visit, a bit heavy with accompanying pecorino sardo strangely overpowering; on a second, however, they were technically perfect, cloudlike in their lightness, with mushrooms, onion, and that same pecorino, this time more judiciously applied. The undecorated shaved mushrooms seemed unfinished, but it's a small quibble with an otherwise lovely plate of food.

The biggest surprise may have been in the desserts. Glancing at a menu with just two sorbets and a panna cotta, I'd usually pass. But each dessert was as beautifully structured as the mains. An uncannily silken panna cotta bore sparse perfect accents of salt and fennel pollen, along with a small pool of honey that seems underapplied but is in fact just enough to avoid overpowering its delicate base. Blueberry sorbet tastes vividly of that fruit, even more so with freeze-dried blueberries scattered on top; a rich yogurt base and wisps of matcha macarons turn it into a composed plate.

Estela manages these exciting moments at every turn. A straightforward-sounding cocktail that's just a little better than you'd hoped. A beautiful dessert under the assumed name of an everyday one. A beef tartare that manages to be more interesting than anything you'd ever had.

There are a lot of new restaurants to be excited about this fall. But I'm also looking forward to there being a new It Restaurant—so the crowds recede at Estela just a bit. Then I'll be back, because a seat at that bar is a great place to be.

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