As soon as President Barack Obama took his wife Michele Obama on a date to Estela, a restaurant on the south side of Houston street serving tasty food in cramped digs, its fate was sealed. Once the favorite of few, it’s now a destination for many. So, that the second venture for Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter opened to a lot of fanfare is no surprise. Since the restaurant opened in February, it has enjoyed steady crowds and favorable reviews. Pete Wells reviewed it for the New York Times this week, and like everyone else, he’s on board.
If you’re one of those people who makes your dining companions wait to eat until after you’ve photographed all of the food on the table from every angle, you should stop reading now. This isn’t the restaurant for you. As the title of the review suggests, “looks aren’t everything” at this place, and the photo ops are “as bad as the food is good.” The carpaccio, which Wells describes as “simple and marvelous,” looks like “a close-up of a skinned knee, or an aerial shot of a dormant volcano made out of flesh” when photographed. That’s kind of the theme here. Food, done simply, cooked well.
He would eat the lamb chop again in a minute. He might push the shoulder to the side, “but not the thin curve of meat and fat that, left on the outside edge of the bone, crisped up like bacon.” The whole turbot is “sweet, slightly sticky,” and has mayo on the side for pairing which tastes “quite good.”
The pastas are small, but delicious. If you’re a fan of Estela, you’re already familiar with the portion sizes. You might be disappointed when you “find you could transfer all the spaghetti in your bowl into one cupped hand,” but you should “play the kitchen’s game… Eat the slow-cooked chicken ragù brightened with briny green olives and tossed with skinny, chewy tubes of garganelli and you should be happy.”
The appetizers may seem ordinary but are “far from it.” The pasta should serve as a “midmeal diversion.” Skip the pork Milanese, it’s only “so-so.” Desserts are an “encouraging sign” for the restaurant. “The dark and bittersweet chocolate-walnut torta is intense without congealing into fudge, and the rhubarb crostata has a crust that’s a pleasure on its own.Even the gelato is a nice surprise.”
The room has high ceilings and big windows, suggesting it may open for breakfast or lunch soon. It would be fitting; Estela is known for having one of the best breakfast sandwiches around. Right now it’s only open for dinner, and though it can be busy inside the restaurant, they don’t have the same noise issues that Estela does.
One thing that could be improved is the “interesting” factor on the food, but Wells thinks they’ll evolve over time.
Overall? Two stars.
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