Friday, February 24, 2012

Empellon, Redux

Alex Stupak, doing his due diligence in the NYC restaurant scene, has already opened his second Mexican outpost. His first solo spot, (Stupak was once the venerated pastry chef at both Alinea and Wd-50) Empellon Taqueria, opened last year to rave reviews. This reviewer ate there early, on a rainy Tuesday night, and found it lovely if a little expensive for souped-up tacos. Empellon Cocina is a truly different experience, a high end take on low brow Oaxacan food, plated in a palpably two-star way. The food is small, precious, and a little too proper for the neighborhood, the dregs of the east village on first avenue. But with some misses, it seems clear that this place will be a hit in the future.

Chicharrones with a tomatillo and caper salsa were actually still crackling when they arrived at the table and thin planes of masa with accompanying salsas--creamy, spicy, and not at all what I expected--were true to both the roots of the cuisine and Stupak's high star ambitions. Ruby red shrimp with a masa cracker, micro greens, and a lovely cream reminiscent of pimento cheese may have been the highlight of our evening, a sure crowd pleaser and loads more satisfying that a later pork dish. Billed as a "queso," but served cold and with no real trace of cheese, the thin slices of hazelnut-fed pork tasted best when wrapped in hot, fresh, flour tortillas.

An empanada oozed yellow egg when cut open over chorizo and sweet potatoes; the dish was called a gordita, but it was small and not at all fat, as the word means in Spanish. Manila clams with puffed beef tendon (a bit too similar to those earlier chicharrones) arrived swimming in a sauce best described as the bathtub for a perfect Buffalo wing. Spicy and rich, it cleared our sinuses and prepared us for the ribs we had been expecting.

But... no ribs! Our expeditor brought skirt steak instead. We had corrected our waiter once before, when he had double checked our order and repeated steak back to us. No, ribs, we said. We sent the steak back. Our waiter blamed the mistake on us. "You said you had a nut allergy and the ribs are covered in nuts, so I thought you meant the beef ribs." Except that there were no ribs in the beef dish, and he hadn't mentioned anything about nuts in the ribs in the first place (I'm pretty sure he made this up to buffer the blow of his mistake). We ordered duck on the fly as a replacement and it came out a few minutes later, nicely cooked and in the company of sliced avocado and baby potatoes. But it was not the sticky ribs we had expected and, indeed, ordered.

In that vein, our waiter was an example of what not to do. He recommended dishes before we even had the chance to ask, and the items he pointed to all hit the highest price point on the menu. His suggestions, too, were not always what I would have chosen and I didn't really feel like I needed his input, anyway. The drinks took forever to arrive and for a while I was convinced that he had forgotten my margarita or my Mexican Coke inspired drink sweating at the bar. When I opted for that margarita, by the way, I felt like I was disappointing him, since it wasn't one of the drinks that he suggested I order. It was too much pressure with too little reward.

Desserts were too conceptual and too savory for my liking. This happens often in fine dining establishments, where a pastry chef wants to tread the line between salty and sweet. But a chocolate cake had meant one thing in my mind and another thing when translated on the plate, a dry jelly roll of sponge cake with too many sesame seeds. Empanadas were thin and dry and filled with a dehydrated pineapple that reminded me of healthy candy.

There are kinks to be worked out, of course. I hope, for one, that our eager beaver waiter is eventually put in his place and stops blaming his mistakes on the guests. In the meantime, I'll wait for the critics to catch up before I hit Empellon again, even though I know it will likely rise to the occasion.

Empellon Cocina
105 First Avenue
New York, NY 10003

Monday, February 20, 2012

The New Three Star Is The Old Two Star

I'm not sure what it means these days, the vaunted three star rating handed down to a restaurant from the powers that be at The New York Times (most recently, those "powers" are the provenance of one man, Pete Wells). Three star used to signify a certain dining dignity, a certain excellence not only of food but also of service. It used to connote white tablecloths and, on a good night, crystal. Not these days. I wasn't disappointed by the actual food at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria, the most recent recipient of a fine three star review, but I was disappointed about what such a review means for the future of restaurants. The plate of in-house cured meats that arrived at our table was subtle, nuanced, slick with soft fat, and quite possibly the best plate of such that I have ever enjoyed outside of Europe. My agrodolce cocktail lived up to its namesake, both sour and sweet. The chewy, dense, full-flavored bread that came--only after we asked for it, of course--was rich with raisin and whole grain and ten times better than the best of the saltless Tuscan varieties.

But a server who delivered our charcuterie could not name the meats on our plate and it took an inordinately long time for said cocktails to arrive at said table. We asked for share plates twice and finally they arrived, but by then we were mostly done eating the things we had so carefully ordered. A server kept asking, "are you still working on that?" even when there was still visible food on our plates. She might as well have told us that she had been cut and wanted to go home.

For me, baccalao missed the mark. I got nothing but flaky fish beneath the flaky exterior, as opposed to the milk/cream/salt cod mixture I was expecting. And baked eggs, taken a minute too far in the oven, were overrun by shavings of bottarga that turned the dish into a fishy mess. Not so with the slick spaghetti with bottarga, though, which was a complete marriage of texture and taste. Also perfect was the porchetta sandwich--roast pork, crisp skin, chewy bread, salsa verde, and a side of pickled carrots. And desserts, generally not the highlight of any Italian meal, were surprisingly impressive. A bitter orange polenta cake kept its moisture from a nearby scoop of amaretto gelato and a roasted pear tasted better with a scoop of creme fraiche gelato. I was happy, too, that I had splurged and ordered a separate cup of salted caramel gelato, as creamy and unctuous as it is on the streets of Umbria.

The food is delicious; about that I have no question. But does the elevation of peasant food to three star cuisine do anything for New York restaurants that David Chang hasn't already? To that I offer a resounding no.

Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria
53 Great Jones Street
New York, NY 10012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Surprise of the Year

I am so frequently let down by New York restaurants that a genuinely delicious experience often sends me reeling. Twice now in the past two weeks I have found elusive culinary grandeur in humble Italian roots. Two weeks ago, it was Il Buco on Bond Street. This past week, I found a similar transcendent experience at Maialino.

Maialino divorces itself from the pomp and circumstance that is the Gramercy Park Hotel, where the rustic, full, and comfy restaurant lives. If the hostess takes you toward the back, know that you are in capable hands and are heading to a row of low, linen-backed banquettes, which make a person feel like she is eating in someone's really nice and comfortable Restoration Hardware-outfitted apartment.

Immediately, cheesy and crispy breadsticks arrive, along with crusty bread that is nothing like the saltless version offered up in Tuscany. Maialino has a wide selection of charcuterie, and on the night we were there they were offering a recently cured bresola, thin sliced-beef that usually has the consistency of rubber tire. But not at Maialino, where the careful plate came with olive oil and lemon juice and salt--nothing more. The tender beef, more akin to a lovely roast than an old steak, required no more frill than that.

A plate of fried things included brains, sweetbreads, and artichokes. Artichokes, rarely my favorite, sang through the light batter and bright squeeze of a lemon. Brains were regrettably gooey and undersalted and reminded me why such things should only be served at their best (I was brought back to a memory of eating them fried in a wine cellar in Spain). But sweetbreads redeemed the plate.

Then a pasta duo, one with a starchy sauce of salt and pepper and cheese and one of stuffed shells with Italian sausage and deep green kale. The plates are small enough to keep a calorie count intact and encourage sharing in favor of ordering other dishes on the menu. We wiped our plates clean, breathless by the time our final course--the restaurant's signature suckling pig--came out. Pressed under the weight of a crispy shingle of skin, the meat was tender and juicy, complimented by a side of crispy Brussels sprouts.

We attempted two desserts, donuts with apple glaze that were delicious if ordinary, and a bread pudding made from chocolate croissants. The latter stole my heart, as did so many things at Maialino.

2 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10010