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

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