I must admit, I went to Empellón with and still have mixed feelings about the place. I mean, Alex Stupak is (or was) one of the very best Pastry chefs on the planet, let alone New York City! Sure, I love Mexican food, but this is Alex Stupak I am writing about.
I was not surprised when he announced that he would be leaving WD-50 and that he and his wife, pastry chef Lauren Resler would be opening Empellón, a restaurant t0 stress high quality regional Mexican cooking. I first heard Chef Stupak talking about a dream of opening a Mexican restaurent with his wife back in 2007 at the second Starchefs International Chefs Congress in NYC. Still, knowing that Chef Stupak is a perfectionist, I would have to try whatever he decides to do. Fortunately for me, I was in NYC during their opening week and secured a reservation for their second night. Given that it was only their second night, though, I was expecting that there might be some problems.
Empellón is located at 230 West 4th St. in the West Village where somehow West 4th St and West 10th St. converge. Situated on the corner, the restaurant has plenty of views to the street and during daylight hours plenty of natural light. Unfortunately for me, my dinner was not during daylight hours and the interior lighting was less than ideal for food photography, however, I did return a couple of days later to take some photos and sample a few more dishes.
The interior is quite comfortable and tastefully decorated with Mexican art. One enters into a room dominated by a bar on one side of the room that adds some color and rich wood, but reduces the contribution of outside light as it is situated where windows might otherwise be. Cocktails were interesting and tasty. I sampled a few and all were delicious. The first was a take on a Manhattan made with Oaxacan chocolate and Xocolatl bitters. While not a revolutionary departure from a classic Manhattan, it was distinctive enough to be memorable and it was certainly tasty. Another was called The Darkest Corner of Oaxaca. It contained Del Maguey Vida mezcal, orange juice and pasilla chile. This was smoky and flavorful, but not quite as spicy as anticipated or desired. The last was called ¿Por Que No? and was my favorite. It contained Espolon Silver tequila, cilantro, serrano chile and pineapple juice. Exceptionally well balanced, por que no? indeed. I can’t think of an adequate answer to that question.
Starting with some quick bites for the table we chose both offered on the menu. The chicharrones were bubbly puffs of light and crisp pork skin. They were served with a salsa veracruz with capers, green olives and parsley, but I preferred them the smoked cashew and arbol chile salsas that accompanied the tremendous guacamole and house made tortilla chips. Both servings were quite substantial and adequate for a small group. Since we wanted to try quite a bit more of the menu, we held back from going overboard and decided not to actually finish either of these addictive starters. I had to exert all of my willpower.
The way the menu is structured it is very easy to stick with a variety of small plates. Ordering a number of things, we were tempted to forego salads, but that would have been a mistake. The cauliflower with spinach, almonds and a chorizo vinaigrette was rich and reminiscent of a Momofuku dish in its spicy, complex and satisfying depth. Light and refreshing, a salad of mixed herbs with green beans, jicama, crema, a chile sauce and crumbled Mexican cheese on a tostada was a nice treat when I returned a couple of days later.
The Mariscos (Chilled seafood dishes) are superb. The red snapper ceviche with beets and guava puree sounds like it would be too sweet, but its balance was just marvelous. The flavors and textures meshed in great harmony. This is one of the best things I have eaten so far this year. Though tempted, I didn’t have the Scallops with pineapple and salsa campechana (habanero, epazote and shellfish broth) the night of my dinner, but I did get to sample it on my return. Though not quite as outstanding to me as the snapper ceviche, it is still a winner.
The quesos also supply richness and great flavor. The goat cheese with sweet potato and hoja santa was as good as it was novel. Hoja santa is a Mexican herb that I haven’t often encountered in NYC. It provided a haunting sarsparilla note to the creamy goat cheese and the subtle sweetness of the tuber. It was all well balanced when spread on the fresh corn tortillas which have come to the table in a special warmer designed by Chef Stupak himself.
While we didn’t have any of the sopes (crispy masa tarts) during dinner, I got to taste the fried egg with refried beans on my return visit. It was sensational. A take on the classic huevos rancheros, it provided all the satisfying homeyness of that dish, but with greater sophistication. If I lived in the neighborhood, this would become a regular feature of my diet.
The tacos are already becoming a staple of the menu. We tried a couple of specials including the head cheese taco and the Scotch egg taco. Both were quite delicious, though each was meant for an individual coming with a single taco per plate unlike the regular tacos which are served three to a plate. The fish tempura with cabbage and lime mayonaise was an exquisite, greaseless rendition of a Mexicali standard.
The platos or main courses can easily be an afterthought here, but some good eating would be left behind. Getting quite full and not wanting to forego dessert (both Alex and Lauren are first class pastry chefs and Lauren is doing the dessert program), we only tried one of the mains – the maitake mushrooms with rajas and masa balls. This was another full flavored dish. The masa balls took the place of Italian gnocchi and had a similar shape and texture, however, the flavor was that of corn.
Some who may come to Empellón because they are familiar with Alex Stupak’s desserts at Alinea or WD-50 may be disappointed when they learn that he is not and will not be making the desserts here. They may not be familiar with his wife, Lauren or her work at such places as Bouchon Bakery and Babbo, but once they see and taste her desserts, all disappointment is likely to vanish. Lauren happens to be quite a talented pastry chef in her own right. We tried the Chocolate Flan with Masa-Cocoa Strussel and Cinnamon Ice Cream and the Passion Fruit Tart with Mezcal, Mint and Toasted Meringue. Both were simply superb with great flavors and textures, all well balanced and vibrant. The cinnamon ice cream, perhaps a bit pedestrian sounding in this day and age of anything as ice cream, but it is anything but. It is cinnamon at its highest level, fully satisfying and delicious enough that it would have worked quite nicely on its own. That it stood with the other fine components that it did, only served to elevate them all even further. No, even though Alex Stupak is no longer making dessert, it really doesn’t matter with desserts as good as these.
I wrote earlier that given that this was just the second day of service at Empellón, I expected problems, but I was surprised at how smooth everything was. Though there were minor imperfections, such as my napkin being removed when I got up and not being replaced for dessert, they were surprisingly few and minor. Our waitress was friendly without being cloying and she was reasonably attentive to us even though the place was hopping. The food was all quite good without any apparent major glitches from the kitchen. Even the pacing was smooth and regular. If they were this good then, I can only imagine how good they will be once they settle into a rhythm.
Sure, I still have mixed feelings about Empellón. I will miss Alex Stupak’s creative, delicious desserts like I miss Sam Mason’s too. The good news, though, is that there are still a lot of really good pastry chefs in NYC. The better news is that now there is also a really good Mexican restaurant in Manhattan that is serving more than the same old menu as the other Mexican restaurants in the City. Empellón is worth a visit. My guess is that with one visit, there will be more. It’s only the beginning.