Roll with it - Issue 118 - Magazine | Monocle

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If you Google “Barack Obama’s favourite restaurant”, Estela is at the top. “Really?” says Ignacio Mattos, chef and co-owner of the famed restaurant in New York. He’s genuinely surprised. On that night in 2014, when the Obamas swung by unannounced, the area’s traffic ground to a halt. “That was a crazy experience. I had to kick my friends off their table,” says Mattos. “I was like, ‘The president’s coming.’” Despite the flurry in the dining room, the kitchen remained calm. “I had to think, ‘It’s just another table.’”

As chef and co-owner of three New York restaurants (Estela, Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar) Mattos values the moments he can have to himself. Fortunately New York, for all its intensity, affords the opportunity to be anonymous sometimes. “That’s what I love about New York – and about this place.” We’re sitting, legs dangling, at one of the polished wooden alcoves at Arcade Bakery, tucked away in the lobby of the historic Merchants Square Building in Manhattan. It’s the perfect place to keep a low profile: from the street you wouldn’t know it exists. Mattos cherishes the quiet. “At my old neighbourhood spot in the East Village it was like going to a social club. You have to be in the mood for that.” Since moving to the Financial District, Arcade has become Mattos’s favourite haunt. About three or four times a week, he swings by for a croissant and black coffee and takes a quiet moment before work. “I keep it as a moment of solitude.”

When describing the bread and pastries on offer, Mattos drifts into a reverie: “Bread is such a primal thing,” he says. “This alchemy of bacteria, wheat, water – it’s literally nothing and you have a whole meal out of it.” While the baked goods at Arcade are entirely different to the food Mattos serves in his restaurants, he recognises a similar dedication to craft. “We speak the same language. It’s a sensibility and that’s probably why I gravitate here.”

Mattos was born in Uruguay and has lived in Argentina and Brazil but considers himself an adopted New Yorker. For him it’s akin to a medal of honour: on New York’s sizzling restaurant scene, acclaim from picky diners is hard won. “If you want New Yorkers to embrace you, you have to work for them.”

Hard work is not something that seems to faze Mattos. In October he released the Estela cookbook and he’s also thinking about another restaurant, the design of which would, doubtless, be on a equal footing with the dishes it serves. “I’d like to think that the space would look like a modern church,” he says, casting an eye up to Arcade’s domed ceiling. Another source of inspiration could be the beautiful dilapidated buildings of Uruguay and Argentina that Mattos recalls from his past. “It’s all intertwined. We’re a product of all these experiences. We try to detach from them but you can’t fight it.”

The CV:

Works with Francis Mallmann at Los Negros and Patagonia Sur
2006 Works in New York’s Il Buco
2011 Works at Isa in Williamsburg, which wins new-restaurant award
2013 Opens Estela
2016 Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar open
2018 Nominee for James Beard Foundation best chef in New York

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