Empellón Cocina, NYC

March 26, 2013

Alex Stupak, 33, was regarded by many as the best American avant-garde dessert chef, at Clio, at Alinea, then for four years at WD-50. But he abandoned this specialty and, two years ago, opened a taqueria in the East Village called Empellón, meaning “push” in Spanish. This career change created quite a stir in New York foodie circles, summed up by the ever vociferous Steve who wrote:
“what he has done is the equivalent of Picasso deciding he was going to paint by numbers instead of creating major works.”

Stupak included in a long reply:
“I’m trying to find beauty and my own voice within a system of cooking that I think rivals any other in terms of technical complexity and pure dynamic flavors.” He has also said that he chose pastry not because of a strong interest in it, but because it allowed him to be independent and run his own show within the framework of a prestigeous restaurant.

Then last year Stupak opened Empellón Cocina featuring “Mexican” cuisine more creative than tacos. It immediately became very trendy; Pete Wells, in a New York Times review two months later wrote:
Empellón Cocina is an exciting restaurant where even the dishes that don’t quite add up can be fun.”

It has just been named a finalist in the Best New Restaurant category for this year’s national James Beard awards.

On the issue of authenticity versus creativity, the restaurant’s website says:

Garlic, ginger and scallions taste different coming from a wok then they do from a sauté pan. Technique and application define a cuisine just as much as the ingredients. In fact, I would argue more so. And that is the philosophy of our kitchen in the East Village. At Empellón Cocina we are dedicated to the myriad of fundamental techniques and applications that make Mexican cooking taste Mexican. But we are dedicated to using them with our own sensibility. Empellón’s approach to cuisine is informed by authenticity but not limited by it.
-Alex Stupak

Linda and I went for dinner on March 10, 2013. We were seated at the table in the back corner under the window into the kitchen where I could watch the action. Our waiter, Mark L, was very helpful in explaining the format and the dishes. He continued to be attentive throughout the meal. There is, of course, a wide selection of margaritas, other cocktails and beers, but I just started with a glass of Austrian Matthias Hager Sauvignon Blanc.

For an appetizer we chose
Sea Urchin Guacamole
Sea Urchin Salsa
empellon cocina a
Globs of fresh sea urchin garnished the fresh, chunky guacamole that was gently spiced. In the little bowl was a spicier sea urchin sauce. On the right were masa crisps. Good.

On the wine list we found a bottle of 2004 Viña Ardanza reserva  at a very reasonable price.
empellon cocina b
This is an old favorite of ours; it went well with the flavorful cuisine without losing its elegance.

Linda’s starter was
Roasted Carrots
Mole Poblano, Yogurt, Watercress
empellon cocina c
This copious portion was served cold; we thought it would have been better if the carrots were warm. Underneath was refreshing yoghurt. The dark sauce gets its color from chocolate, one of many ingredients in mole poblano, Mexico’s most typical sauce. This was good, but became boring in this portion larger than is needed for a starter.

My first course was
Black Mole, Potatoes, Sour Orange Mayonnaise
empellon cocina d
The squid was barely cooked. The black mole and mayonnaise were restrained enough not to blot out its subtle flavor. Nice.

The four main courses did not look appealing to us. Tacos were initially not on the menu at Empellón Cocina, in order not to sully its image, but creative tacos have now appeared; they come two per order so we chose two orders to share.
Crispy Sweetbreads
Green Chorizo Gravy
empellon cocina e
Green chorizo is a specialty of Toluca, milder than the regular variety. Its color comes from tomatillo and cilantro. It was a good match with the crisp lamb sweetbreads, which had retained their flavor. Nice.

Shortrib Pastrami
Pickled Cabbage, Mustard Seed Salsa
empellon cocina f
Stupak says he added pastrami in order to have something very New York with a Mexican tinge. The tartness of the cabbage offset the slight sweetness of the shortrib meat. Mustard seeds were a fun and pretty way to add the mustard.

There is no dessert menu. The waiter told us the four offerings of the evening. (The dessert chef is Stupak’s wife.)  I had a black currant coated sponge cake with shards of meringue and black currant with cucumber sorbet.
empellon cocina g

We had a good time and enjoyed the meal, but I was expecting more successful creations, combinations and techniques. None of the dishes we ordered were failures, but none were notable successes either. The service was always excellent and the pace just right. The noise level from the young clientèle was energetic.

We are glad we tried it. 



One Response to “Empellón Cocina, NYC”

  1. If you want to experience the cooking of a chef who is doing a good job of combining traditional cooking ideas with modern concepts, go to Red Medicine in Los Angeles where the blend of molecular cooking concepts and Vietnamese flavors is superb. I’m not exactly sure why the cooking there is better than what Alex is doing at the Empellons but (Alex and Jordan Kahn cooked together at Alinea), I suspect that there are two significant reasons for this difference. First, infusing contemporary cooking with Vietnamese flavors doesn’t have the same limitations as infusing Mexican food with modern concepts.But more importantly Jordan’s cooking is about his passion and Alex’s cooking appears to be compromised by the fact that he wants to make money. Nothing wrong with that, but it does have a funny way of compromising art. In fact I am sure that Alex makes a lot more money than Jordan. But Jordan’s food blows Alex’s away.

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