Carrots with mole at Empellón Cocina
Queso fundido with lobster at Empellón Cocina
Squid and potatoes with black mole at Empellón Cocina
Masa crisps with shrimp and sea urchin mousse at Empellón Cocina
Those who obsessively follow the travails of New York chefs know the story of Alex Stupak by heart. The toque, who built a reputation as one of the country’s edgiest dessert stars at Alinea in Chicago and wd~50 on the Lower East Side, famously flipped from avant-garde sweets to Mexican street food last fall, sending shock waves through the Gotham food scene. That restaurant, Empellón Taqueria, was his first project as headliner. But some critics (like this one) weren’t as inspired by the former pastry chef’s radical shift.
Still, the place was a hit from Day One—popular enough, in fact, to have already spawned an offshoot. The new spot, the taco-free Empellón Cocina, is a return for the chef to more familiar territory: not a sugary retreat, but a step back toward his haute-cuisine roots. This second venture may look more casual than the first—as dark as an East Village saloon, with walls covered in Day of the Dead paintings and a trippy blue rooster out of some peyote-popping fever dream—but much of the food is more creative and high-end than the setting suggests.
Some chefs are like gastronomic Margaret Meads, quick studies in replicating the food of cultures far from their own. Stupak, a notorious tinkerer, is much more original. Everything here is designed for sharing, and a table cluttered with his most impressionistic fare feels Mexican only in the most cosmopolitan sense.
Miniature roasted carrots, in one boisterous small plate, arrive sprouting from an earthenware bowl that’s been artfully streaked with cool yogurt and sweet-spicy mole. And a jagged forest of baby lettuce and fresh masa crackers, propped up by chilled sea urchin mousse and topped with miniature shrimp, is just as wild, with an intense ocean flavor. Another beautiful abstraction features black mole splattered like a Rorschach blot around seared calamari curls, an explosion of super-savory elements with fried potato nuggets and drips of chorizo mayo.
If there were more dishes like these on the menu, the new Empellón might be a transcendent restaurant. But for every upgraded Mexican triumph—the chunky guacamole with shelled pistachios, the queso fundido with sweet lobster meat—there’s a flawed attempt at regional accuracy. The chef’s spin on a traditional tinga from Puebla—a peasant stew made here with shredded duck leg and chorizo—has no real depth, with rare slices of duck breast lost under the muddy sauce. And leathery pork ribs are monochromatic too, the chewy meat drenched in a one-dimensional Oaxacan-style gravy made with roasted tomatoes, pasilla chilies and cinnamon.
Desserts, which are the purview of Stupak’s wife, Lauren Resler (a former pastry chef at Babbo), do a better job of bringing high-end polish to real regional tastes. Her marquesote—a traditional jam-topped Mexican sponge cake—arrives deconstructed, the moist cubes of vanilla cake surrounded by bitter orange marmalade, crumbled brown butter streusel and café con leche ice cream. Another refined-rustic creation features a study in sweet plantains—candied, mashed, dehydrated and made into ice cream—in and around a warm shortcake biscuit.
Stupak’s best work at Empellón Cocina is exciting and thoughtful—the kind of food you’d expect from a veteran savory chef, not a newly minted renegade. The more he accedes to his wildest instincts and forsakes the culinary anthropology, the clearer it becomes: Stupak has the makings of a master.
Eat this: Guacamole with pistachios, queso fundido with lobster, roasted carrots with mole, masa crisps with shrimp and sea urchin mousse, squid and potatoes with black mole, vanilla marquesote
Drink this: The bar has one of the most comprehensive selections of mescal in New York, with 41 different selections in 1.5 ounce pours, ranging from the cheap and potent Scorpion blanco ($9) to the complex and exorbitant Del Maguey Pechuga ($38). Try the Fidencio Classico with a pickled-tomatillo-juice chaser ($6). The extensive list of artisanal cocktails includes the Hecho en Humo, an intriguing mix of El Mayor tequila, black-walnut bitters, an intense reduction of Mexican Coke and a hint of real smoke.
Sit here: The front bar is loud and rowdy—a good place for a strong drink and some snacks. The dining room back toward the kitchen is a much more relaxed place for a full meal.
Conversation piece: The wallpaper images—of a black-and-white Pancho Villa and his rebellious compadres—were taken from the pages of a Mexican history book. A street artist named Gaia, whom Stupak met while walking around NYC, did the blue rooster and other graffiti-ish work in spray paint on the walls.
|Venue name:||Empellón Cocina||Contact:|
105 First Ave
|Cross street:||between 6th and 7th Sts|
|Opening hours:||Mon, Tue 5:30–10:30pm; Wed, Thu 5:30–11:30pm; Fri 5:30pm–midnight; Sat 11am–3pm, 5:30pm–midnight; Sun 11am–3pm, 5:30–10:30pm|
|Transport:||Subway: F to Lower East Side–Second Ave, 6 to Astor Pl|
|Price:||Average share plate: $21. AmEx, MC, V|
|Do you own this business?|
Average User Rating
4 / 5
- 5 star:4
- 4 star:0
- 3 star:1
- 2 star:0
- 1 star:1
The food was good, but damn, it's criminal to charge this much for tacos. I had the goat and fried oyster tacos, and both were delicious, but they were small and gone in two seconds. Even with the guacamole and salsa servings before, I was like, why is this chip serving size so damn small? I'm not at this taco place to watch my carbs. The service was excellent, though, and the cucumber jalapeno margaita I sipped on was exactly what I needed. I'll stick to my taco truck.
This was the worst restaurant experience I've ever had in NYC when it comes to service. I called and made a reservation for 9:45 on a Friday night and our party of four arrived promptly on time. We were told that we would be seated shortly as a table was paying their check. Instead, we were seated over 45 minutes later after talking to the hostess and manager multiple times and being reassured that now multiple tables were about to get up. There were three tables just sitting after paying their check for over half an hour with no one from the staff letting them know that there was a reservation waiting. On top of that, they ran out of their signature margarita—and one of the reasons we came to the restaurant in the first place—at 9:45 on a Friday night. I've never been more disappointed in the level of unprofessionalism in a NYC restaurant. Also, food is not worth the price and we left still hungry.
Absolutely love this place. Must get the Guacamole with Jalapeno and Pistachios along with Masa Crisps, Rhubarb, avocado salad with a chorizo chipotle sauce. For more about these and other dishes, please visit http://bit.ly/XW3M8K
I dined at Empellón Cocina on Monday this week and was lucky enough to meet Chef Alex Stupak! What an amazing story he has... he inspired me to write a full review on his restaurant with a special sneak peek into his own life... this guy wakes up scared every day! Check my post out at: http://tinyurl.com/ckgo4bz 5 Stars... an exquisite outcome of a master following his dreams.
I had dinner at Empellon last night and the food was extraordinary. We shared plates among a table of four, and we all were very pleased with the food. Alex Stupak's take on Mexican food is interesting. For example, the guacamole with almonds was different and very tasty. The shrimp was delicious. Overall, I would recommend Empellon to all my friends.