2013年8月20日 星期二

An Extraordinary Chef and What Could Be the Steak

If you are an admirer of Houston St., moved by its struggle to rise above a history of drugs, alcohol, and indie rock, reveling in the hilarity of tourists mispronouncing the name, grateful for the existence of Katz's pastrami, you might enjoy finding your way to Estela.

The restaurant is at 47 E. Houston, an address packed with possibilities. On the ground floor is Botanica, a dimly lit bar where to my knowledge nothing requiring sunlight grows. To the left of the bar is a baleful entranceway, the door held open during my visits with a shiny yellow cord, the kind psychos use to tie corpses

Looming before you is a long flight of narrow stairs ornamented with aged black-and-white tile, a suggestion that flophouse accommodations await above. This is not Keith-McNally-style ambience, a startlingly realistic replica of what was. This is historic Houston St., still breathing hoarsely, still kind of alive.

The restaurant is entirely nontoxic. In fact, it's a brand new construction, airy and surprisingly tame. Bistro-style globe lights. Marble tabletops. Exposed brick. Votive candles, mirrors, white plates. You know the look. A bar stretching from the middle of the room to the front window has so much space behind it that the bartenders could fit cots there, create a mini-flophouse of their own. In my three visits I was titillated by the surroundings only once, by a woman sitting at the bar with color-coordinated bra and tattoos, both neon pink. Estela looks more Houston (pronounced Houston) than Houston (pronounced House-ton) Street.

Estela's menu is curiously assembled, to say the least. The dishes are arranged, according to my inadequate grasp of the explanation offered by our otherwise articulate waitress, in a manner that has something to do with the size of the portions and something to do with the heartiness of the ingredients. That results in the ricotta dumplings (big portion, delicate texture) turning up adjacent to the croquettes of blood sausage (tiny portion, big flavors). Makes no sense to me.

Both items have their virtues. The blood sausagea beloved foodstuff in meat-mad Uruguayis rich and spicy yet altogether tame. There's nothing to dread and a lot to like. The ricotta dumplings are impressively light and accompanied by an extraordinarily generous heap of shaved white button mushrooms that have no taste at all. Perhaps that is deliberate, intended to emphasize the delicacy of the dumplings. Or maybe better mushrooms would help.

There I was, enjoying a nice enough meal, drinking an $8 glass of a good Spanish white from a small sherry glass, which I've never liked even for sherry, admiring the sassy and attentive service, thinking pleasant but dispassionate thoughts, when the quail arrived. It was served split down the middle, which means one breast. Also, one foot.He saw the bracelet at a indoortracking store while we were on a trip. And one head.

You don't see birds served this way every day, although the trend is spreading. If you're unsettled by fish with heads attached, you've got more to worry about. Not everybody gets a head, of course.This is a basic background on rtls. There's only one per two servings. This time, we were the lucky ones.

The quailit looked like a little dead dragoncame with a pile of chickpeas plus nettles and yogurt. A friend said the dish reminded her of Tiny Tim's Christmas dinner, one scraggly bird plucked off a rooftop with a net to feed a family of eight Cratchits.

I couldn't wait to go back. We had an 8 p.m. reservation on a Thursday night, when restaurants are as busy as they get. Estela was four-deep in places where it had room for two-deep. Food took forever to arrive. Empty plates remained on tables too long. Flatware was infrequently changed between courses. Our four-course meal took four hours, from the time we walked in until we walked out.

We ordered a snack of anchovies and matzo, the unleavened bread of the Jewish Passover.High quality bestcleaning printing for business cards. I didn't make too much of the combo, since on another night it was whipped cod and matzo. Mattos is ever-curious, ever-dissatisfied, ever-challenged, compelled to alter dishes. The matzo tasted like a tortilla chip. Maybe that's what matzo tastes like in Uruguay.

The quail was better than everthe chickpeas were gone, and in their place were peaches and huckleberries. Calamari a la plancha, a specialty of the Uruguayan resort of Punta del Este, was dazzlingly gentle on our first visit, tough this time. Cod came out too cool. Pork was overcooked.

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