When we were seated for our 8PM reservation, my first thought was, “I hope I didn’t make a big mistake.” The room was very dark, the restaurant was mobbed and the noise loud. The environment wasn’t quite what I had envisioned for this restaurant serving more refined Mexican influenced cuisine than its older sibling, now known as Empellón Taqueria. While, for some reason, I expected a more sedate restaurant, I should have known better, if for no other reason that it is located in the East Village on 1st Avenue. But, I have been a fan of Chef Alex Stupak since he opened Alinea as its original pastry chef. I followed him to WD-50 and then to the original Empellón. There was a reason I chose to dine at Empellón Cocina and once the food and drink started coming, I remembered why.
Alex Stupac and his wife Lauren Resler have dreamed of a Mexican restaurant of their own since at least the second International Chefs Congress put on by Starchefs.com in 2006, when they verbalized that wish aloud. Time passed and Stupak continued as one of the best pastry chefs on the planet, working at WD-50, until the beginning of 2011 when he left to open the original Empellón. Even as that restaurant was just opened, Stupak saw that it was not going to fulfill all that he wanted to do with Mexican cooking. He saw that the original Empellón was destined to be a taqueria, albeit an original and very good one. Stupak still had fine dining in his blood and he wanted to explore Mexican cooking and flavors in ways that a taqueria just couldn’t do. Fast forward to spring 2012 and the opening of Empellón Cocina, a more ambitious restaurant than the original.
We started with the chicharrones, ethereally light and greaseless puffed cracklings with good pork flavor that was enhanced by a piquant tomatillo-caper salsa. Neither the tomatillo nor the capers, both strong flavor components, drowned out the other. Both flavors were present, but in a superb balance.
Guacamole is ubiquitous in Mexican restaurants, but few are as alluring or addicting as Stupak’s, which includes pistachios and a pistachio based salsa to add an unusual depth. The guac had a nice limey tang, which often makes avocado taste more like bananas, but not here. The masa crisps were different too, but also addicting. When smeared with a little of the pistachio salsa and then fortified with some chunky guac, this kept us all going back for more.
Cocktails were excellent. The Rooster’s Claw with Pueblo Viejo Reposado tequila, fresh mango puree and habañero had good bite and flavor without being too sweet. Even better was the Hecho en Humo with El Mayor Blanco, a Mexican Coca-Cola reduction, Regan’s Orange Bitters, black walnut bitters and smoke that made me feel like I was back in the bar at Sam Mason’s Tailor – another fantastic former WD-50 pastry chef who went to try his hand at savories.
Our waiter suggested that the dishes were ideal for sharing and that two to three plates per person generally provided more than enough food. I was there with my wife and our son and we all agreed that was a good idea, especially since there were so many dishes on the menu that appealed.
Our meal followed a progression based on the organization of the menu. The first dish was actually something that we hadn’t ordered. Roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt, and watercress could have come from the kitchen of noma if it were not for the mole, but it was the mole that made this dish stand out. In Mexico, the mole is a main component of a dish and anything else is there to serve as a vehicle for it. Such was the case here. The carrots were the most visually prominent element on the plate and they were wonderful, especially as carriers for this heavenly sauce that legend has it was first made by nuns in Puebla, Mexico. The mole was complex and brilliant. The yogurt and watercress adding some creaminess and light vegetal chewiness respectively.
The shrimp with crispy masa, sea urchin mousse and lettuces was packed with flavor and a subtle, wonderful smokiness. The sea urchin lay in the background smoothing out this delightful plate. The flavors were true to Mexico, even if the dish did not initially sound overtly Mexican.
More overtly Mexican was Stupak’s Gorditas with smoked plantain, chorizo and egg yolk. This dish had the appearance of being traditional and had flavors true to Mexico, but the construction with runny yolk oozing from the interior of the flavor packed gordita, suggested a modern approach to the dish’s construction. This heralded a delightful interplay between a cooking that was conceptually true to Stupak’s wish to marry Mexican flavors and preparations to contemporary cooking. It was apparent that Stupak was leaning heavily on traditional Mexico, but also informing that approach with his considerable knowledge and skill with Modernist technique. Never, though, did Stupak let his Modernist approach take center stage. He always managed to keep that aspect of his food in the background, though ever-present.
Two dishes came to the table simultaneously. The first was the decadent Melted tetilla cheese with lobster, tomate frito and kol, a Yucatan style white sauce. The hot melted cheese would have been delicious just by itself, but it had enough lobster to send it over the top, while the other elements played their supporting roles perfectly. Smeared on the warm corn tortillas that came with the dish, this was sheer delight.
We were fortunate to have saved a little bit of the tetilla/lobster dish for after we tried the wonderful, hot-spiced tamal colado, a Yucatan style strained tamal with chicken and achiote, that had also been sent to our table unbidden. The tamal came with a devilishly hot sauce, but was spicy enough even without it. Despite the strong spice heat of the tamal, we could still taste the delicious flavors of this superbly crafted dish. The tamal balanced beautifully with the tetilla.
Stupak’s Modernist heritage was probably most evident with the squid with heirloom potatoes, chorizo mayonnaise and black mole even if it was only by way of visual presentation. The squid was cut to look like short spaghetti and layered on the appropriately black mole, that contained 40 ingredients including chilhaucle negro chiles, the main source of the mole’s black coloring. This was a marvelous dish with great flavors that suffered to our palates just a little from aggressive salting.The same slightly heavy hand with the salt must have prepared the next dish too. Hen of the Woods mushrooms with black bean vermicelli was rich and earthy, packed with flavor and just a touch too much salt for our palates. The salt did not ruin either of these dishes, but it was enough to notice, knocking the dish out of what, to us, was an otherwise ideal balance. To other palates, the level may have been just right. We ordered a dessert each and shared. My son’s pineapple empanadas with pomegranate molasses, crema and coconut sang of the Tropics. My wife’s Frozen Mango Mousse with white chocolate, amaranth and lime combined to form delightful and unusual flavors and refreshing textures. I ordered the relatively boring sounding Chocolate Cake with mole dulce and masa ice cream, but it was anything but boring. The mole dulce was made with ingredients blended together and others kept whole to create an incredibly complex and delicious combination. Along with the excellent cake and the delicious masa ice cream, this was a dessert I will dream about for some time.
Stupak and Resler’s food was as wonderful as I had hoped. The evening we were there was a bit crazy as it was the Friday night before Cinco de Mayo and the place was jammed. We still wound up having an excellent experience, but it wasn’t quite the fine dining experience I had expected. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, though. While, at my age, I might have preferred a more relaxed environment to go with that level of food and a bit more light to visually appreciate it better, the style and energy goes along with its location. Empellón Cocina is a great place to enjoy delicious, cutting edge Mexican cuisine and a very hip vibe. I have to think that Stupak’s cooking at Empellón Cocina would be considered to be just as successful and just as delicious if it were in Mexico City and not New York City.