"How does it look?" asked Chef Ignacio Mattos as I packed up my camera. We'd just spent a few minutes photographing a dish of his that he sparsely describes as pork, borani, and potatoes. Frankly, I was surprised that for an article on plating, Mattos decided to showcase a dish with a decidedly austere presentation.
My honest reply: "It looks like a bowl of potato chips."
But Mattos knows exactly what he's doing. After years at New York City's Il Buco and then Isa, he's made a home for himself at Estela, which has been drawing crowds with its smartly designed cocktails and consistently surprising Spanish-influenced food. In our own review, we lamented how difficult it was to procure a reservation at Estela; more than a year later, its popularity has not receded.
Hidden beneath that layer of crisps—fried-to-order ruby crescent potatoes—is a pan-roasted pork shoulder steak that's been marinated in dijon, garlic, rosemary, and fennel seeds. Atop the pork, but still beneath the chips, is a generous ladleful of Mattos' take on the Iranian yogurt dish borani. His version is lightened with fresh herbs and pickled ramps. The resultant dish reflects Mattos' experience in Italian and Spanish kitchens as well as his love of Middle Eastern flavors, but ultimately portrays his philosophy that flavor is paramount and no compromises are made for looks.
Mattos' dishes commonly feature strong and surprising flavors cloaked by an unassuming and ordinary ingredient. Take, for instance, the cloud-like ricotta dumplings with pecorino sardo that are entirely shrouded beneath a layer of shaved white button mushrooms. Dishes that are inherently drab in appearance, like the beef tartare and rice with squid ink, do not receive any flourish of colorful sauce or finely chopped herbs; Mattos presents them simply piled in bowl, challenging the idiom that 'we eat with our eyes first.' Mattos revels in his diners' humbled expectations. In his words, "People will look at the dish and say, 'This is it? this looks like a pile of shit.' But you are discovering as you go, each mouthful has a surprise element...each bite is like a punch in the face. It's jab after jab, you might not get knocked out but it's a whole meal of jabs." The unassuming presentation belies his food's complex and assertive flavors.
Though Mattos may be irreverent in describing his own style, there is a beauty to his food's restrained ornamentation and almost monotone color palette. The plain presentation underscores his honest approach to ingredients. He takes pride in the fact that most of his walk-in is stocked with ingredients that are available in a supermarket. Even given the option of having a wider inventory or larger kitchen, he declines and explains, "When you have a completely empty canvas, it's easy to over-elaborate and get lost; when you have constraints and limitations, things are neatly tied up."
Physically, Estela's small kitchen limits his access to tools and technology. There are no bubbling sous-vide baths or humming dehydrators. Mattos explains, "We try to keep things as primitive as possible, it's not that we don't own a Vitaprep, but we prefer to use the mortar and pestle." The borani, for instance, is layered with various flavors and textures—the floral celery notes from the lovage, lemony tang from the sorrel, the crisp bite of raw onion. A blended sauce of the same ingredients wouldn't have nearly the same character.
Mattos' modest presentation has consequences off the plate, as well—after all, Estela is not just a popular restaurant, but also a sustainable business. The simple and restrained composition of his dishes allows Mattos and his crew to work more efficiently; the pork dish, for instance, is just two hot components (the pork and chips) served with the room-temperature borani. Once all the elements are ready, it's plated and off to the dining room in a matter of seconds. The casual style allows them to sustain a rapid pace of service, and ultimately turn more tables, without ever sacrificing quality along the way.