Entries in Alex Stupak (4)


Empellón Cocina

Empellón Taqueria had a rocky start when it opened a year ago. The Mexican taco joint from Alex Stupak, the former WD~50 pastry chef, got mixed reviews. I found the food underwhelming and the dining room far too loud.

The chef later added sound-proofing, adjusted prices, and broadened the menu beyond tacos. I haven’t been back, but reports I trust suggest that the place is far more enjoyable now than I found it.

Meantime, Stupak has opened a companion restaurant across town, Empellón Cocina, which will offer a more serious, less taco-centric take on Mexican cuisine. The new dining room, while stylistically similar, is just slightly more upscale than the taqueria. There are some odd stylistic choices amidst the minimalist décor: why a crucifix in one corner and a devil statue in the other?

This time, the sound-proofing was installed from the get-go, with fabric walls taking the place of brick in the original joint. Our reservation was early, but the place was full by the time we left, so this was a good test: the sound-proofing works! It’s not a tomb, but you can carry on a conversation.

I’m usually a bit skeptical of Valentine’s Day tasting menus, which often mass-produce a restaurant’s least-interesting food at a hefty premium over the usual price. But at Empellón Cocina, in its first full week of service, I figured I’d get a pretty good sample of the food Stupak will be serving à la carte, and the price was reasonable: $90 for nine courses.

I am running a bit short on time, so I have reproduced the description of the dishes from the hand-out menu, along with my light comments.

The first three dishes were excellent, with strong flavors and a great balance of flavors:

1. Peeky Toe Crab (above left) with Parsnip Juice, Crab Flan and Smoked Cashew Salsa

2. Dry Aged NY Strip Steak (above right) with Crema Parfait, Black Beans and Salsa Roja

3. Melted Tetilla Cheese (above left) with Lobster, Tomate Frito and Kol (Yucatan-style white sauce)

4. Tortilla Soup (above right)

The Melted Cheese with Lobster could become Stupak’s signature dish: it’s excellent. But the tortilla soup was somewhat forgettable.

5. Scallop (above left) with Gachas de Arroz, Plantains and Chilpachole (shellfish broth, epazote, chipotle).

6. Pork Ribs with White Beans Masa Balls, and Green Mole (tomatillo, serrano chile, herbs).

“Did the first chef go home?” That’s what we wanted to know, as the meal fell off a cliff. The poor, delicate scallop was drowned in an unpleasant pool of tomatoey broth; the ribs, served off the bone, were too dry, and served with a humdrum mole.

Stupak is a pastry chef by trade, so you would expect the desserts to be strong—and they were:

7. Rose Meringe (above left) with Cherry Sorbet and Hibscus Yogurt

8. Bonus course (above center); I believe Arroz con Leche, the best of the three

9. Chocolate Cake (above right) with Pineapple and Vanilla Cream

I didn’t take note of the wine that we ordered, but cocktails before dinner were mediocre. My girlfriend asked for something similar to a Cosmopolitan (they couldn’t make one exactly, as they lacked cranberry juice), and got its diametric opposite. Another that I ordered off the menu tasted mostly of tonic water. But the bar staff seemed new and will undoubtedly improve; to their credit, they took the non-Cosmo off the bill.

Servers were well versed on the menu, and the food came out at a reasonable pace—neither too fast nor too slow. Of course, the kitchen’s task is easier when they know every diner will have exactly the same things, in exactly the same order. That’s one of the reasons why restaurants limit your choices on Valentine’s Day.

If Stupak’s track record at Empellón Taqueria is any guide, Empellón Cocina will get better over time. On a Valentine’s Day tasting menu, one week in, he batted .500 on the savory courses and 1.000 on the desserts. That is a pretty good start.

Empellón Cocina (105 First Avenue between E. 6th & E. 7th Streets, East Village)

Food: *½
Service: *½
Ambiance: *½
Overall: *½



Allow me to set the scene. We’re eavesdroppers Chez Stupak. Alex worked formerly as pastry chef at Alinea, which was on its way to three Michelin stars, being named the #6 restaurant in the world (and #1 in the U.S.), and best Chicago restaurant ever. It hadn’t quite reached those accolades when Alex was there, but it was on the way.

Then Alex moved to WD~50, with another Michelin star, where he was acclaimed as a pastry genius fully worthy of accompanying chef Wylie Dufresne’s wacky but adorable cuisine with three New York Times stars.

We’re eavesdropping Chez Supak, as I say, and Alex says to his wife, Lauren Resler (herself a pastry chef, albeit not as well known), “Let’s open a taco place.” And you want to blow your cover, jump into the scene, and ask the Stupaks, “Srsly? What the Sam Hill are you doing?”

I do realize that investors might have doubts about savory dishes coming from a former pastry chef, especially after Sam Mason (another former WD~50 pastry chef) flamed out spectacularly at Tailor (a restaurant I liked, but not enough people did). As Stupak told Serious Eats:

“My resume really hurt me here,” he says; “People expected me to open a pastry restaurant, but the problem is, once people pigeonhole you, your creativity is severely restricted. People come for my pastry and expect certain things—like you’d expect pasta on an Italian menu—but with Mexican food, they have no expectations. I’m opening a Mexican restaurant because it’s the food I love to eat, and that’s it.”

But still. Why Mexican, and why tacos?

Fast forward about 18 months, and the idea has reached fruition at Empellón, a smallish West Village place at one of the city’s few intersections of two numbered streets, W. 4th and W. 10th.

The space is non-descript and sparsely decorated. Had Stupak chosen Portuguese cuisine, rather than Mexican, the same décor would have worked. The hard surfaces amplify noise, and the tables are close together.

“You’re not saying anything,” my companion observed.

“I’m just out of patience for shouting,” I replied. That was with the dining room doing brisk business on a Saturday evening, but not full by any means. Reservations have not been tough to come by.

Perhaps Stupak is finding that there aren’t enough folks who’ll pay $17 for three small tacos. The server recited a list of proper entrées: it sounded like there were at least four of them, but they went by too quickly. She implied that they’ll soon be on the printed menu, perhaps pushing the tacos to sharable appetizer status. Looks like a smart move.

The current list of appetizers (there are just a few) isn’t expensive, at $10–11 each, but those seeking a more substantial meal may, for now, be disappointed that the menu ends at tacos.

Meatballs ($10; above left) ride atop a crisp biscuit, with roasted tomato, chorizo, and chipotle. They’re a bit unexciting. Cheddar ($11; above right) comes in a sizzling skillet with bacon and huazontles (a Mexican herb), with warm tortillas on the side. We loved this dish and wished it were larger.

There are eight taco dishes, of which we tried two, both $17: Lamb Barbacoa (above left) and Shrimp (above right). Each was hearty and rich, but the shrimp, the spicier of the two, is the one I would order again.

Service is efficient, knowledgeable, and friendly. And to my delight, the restaurant takes reservations, unusual these days at a place this casual. Had it been strictly for walk-ins, I doubt Empellón would have had my business on a Saturday evening when I was coming from uptown, and wanted to know I had a place to eat.

Although we enjoyed our meal, the food strikes me as a work in progress. Empellón will be a much more compelling restaurant when regular entrées make it onto the menu, as they surely will.

Empellón (230 W. 4th Street at W. 10th Street, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *




Note: WD~50 closed at the end of November 2014, giving way to a condo development. Chef Dufresne still has his casual restaurant Alder nearby, but at present he has no known plans to ressurect WD~50.


I probably spend far too much time seeking out the newest restaurants—which often aren’t that great anyway. Either they haven’t worked out the early jitters, or they just aren’t destined for excellence.

The Great Recession still casts a long shadow, and it’s harder than ever to find exciting new restaurants. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop looking, but perhaps it’s time to shift the balance a bit towards old favorites that are overdue for a fresh look.

WD~50 has been on my revisit list for a while, not because anything has changed, but simply for the pleasure of discovering the latest creations to come out of mad scientist Wylie Dufresne’s laboratory. His food might not be to all tastes, but in the avant garde niche he occupies, his work is without peer in New York City.

A few years ago, people wondered if Dufresne could keep the place going, but on a Saturday night, at any rate, it was packed. He has held a Michelin star for five years running, and two years ago Frank Bruni gave WD~50 a much deserved and overdue promotion to three New York Times stars.

The food is expensive, with most of the entrées over $30. Most of the bottles on the wine list are in three figures, and there is hardly anything under $65.

I’m not necessarily complaining about how expensive WD~50 is, merely putting the restaurant in context. Dufresne’s cuisine is well worth the tariff. It is also labor intensive, and Dufresne has only five services a week in which to cover his fixed costs: he doesn’t serve lunch, and he is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The restaurant sells a lot of tasting menus at $140, up from $105 just three years ago (though I think it had fewer courses then). We had it, and so did the tables on either side of us. At a restaurant where so much of the food is unfamiliar, it is better to try a dozen items, as you do on the tasting menu, than to guess which two or three you’ll like.

Our tasting menu was one hit after another, with only one dud among twelve courses. I’m not going to try to describe every one, but I’ll list them all and describe the highlights. (The staff deposited a printed souvenir copy on our table before it began, so that we could follow along.)

The bread service (above) might seem initially disappointing, but sesame flatbread is surprisingly addictive. Before the end of the evening, it was all gone.


1) Veal brisket, honeydew, black olive, fried ricotta (above left)

2) Everything bagel, smoked salmon threads, crispy cream cheese (above right)

These dishes, like everything else on the menu, derive their success from unusual and often surprising combinations of ingredients that just happen to work perfectly. The “everything bagel” is actually a small donut-shaped circle of deep-fried cream cheese.


3) Foie gras, passionfruit, chinese celery (above left). When you see a disc of foie gras on the plate, you assume it’s a terrine. In fact, Dufresne has managed somehow to stuff the foie with passionfruit, which runs out when you cut into it.

4) Scrambled egg ravioli, charred avocado, kindai kampachi (above right). No Dufrene tasting menu would be complete without an egg dish, and this one was masterful.


5) Cold fried chicken, buttermilk-ricotta, tabasco, caviar (above left). We didn’t much care for the cold fried chicken. I’m sure Dufresne has a reason for serving it cold, but it was beyond our comprehension.

6) Striped bass, chorizo, pineapple, popcorn (above right). The striped bass was perfectly cooked.


7) Beef and bearnaise (above left). I think this was meant to be a neighborhood-appropriate play on matzo ball soup.

8) Lamb loin, black garlic romesco, soybean, pickled ramps (above right).


9) Chewy lychee sorbet, pistachio, yuzu, celery (above left).

10) Hazelnut tart, coconut, chocolate, chicory (above right).

12) Rainbow sherbet, rhubarb tarragon, orange, olive oil (no photo).

I have less to say about the desserts individually. Alex Stupak is the pastry chef, and he is every bit Dufresne’s match and alter-ego in the mad science department.

We wrapped up with Cocoa packets, chocolate shortbread, and milk ice cream (right), which took the place of the usual petits-fours.

The standard wine pairing is $85. We didn’t want to drink that much wine, nor was there a particular bottle that caught our fancy, so we asked the sommelier to choose four wines by the glass, and space them out over the two-hour duration of our meal, which he was perfectly happy to do. Like everything else at WD~50, his choices were off the beaten path, but excellent nevertheless.

Although WD~50 is a casual-looking place, the service is as polished and professional as at almost any three-star restaurant in the city. If you haven’t visited, you must. If you haven’t visited lately, it’s time to go back.

WD~50 (50 Clinton Street between Stanton & Rivington Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***



wd50.jpgI haven’t had the best luck with restaurant visits on holidays, such as New Year’s Eve. Restaurants tend to simplify and reduce the scope of their menus, while charging more—in some cases a ton more—than they normally would. Our dinner last year at Picholine was a particularly egregious example of this: $800 for two, for a menu that wasn’t worth half that.

Perhaps the common-sense solution this year would have been to stay home, and save the blow-out meal for another evening. But I reasoned there must be a New Year’s Eve dinner in New York that isn’t a rip-off, and I was determined to find it. At WD-50, we hit pay dirt. It was my first holiday meal at a fine dining restaurant that was worth every penny. I reasoned that the eccentric avant-garde chef Wylie Dufresne wouldn’t suddenly start serving airline food just because he has a captive holiday audience. Dufresne did not disappoint.

At WD-50, the nine-course tasting menu normally sells for $105 [since increased to $125]. I don’t mind a reasonable premium, and the cost on New Year’s Eve was $145. That included a champagne toast, and a free disposable camera and party favors on every table, so the price was fairly close to what you’d pay anyway. The optional wine pairings were $85, again a reasonable cost for 9 half-glasses apiece.

This was the menu, with wine pairings shown in italics:

Crispy carmelized cauliflower, bone marrow, wild American caviar
Cava, Avinyo Brut, NV (Penedes, Spain)

Oyster, salsify, fried lentils, kimchee puree
Cava, Avinyo Brut, NV (Penedes, Spain)

Foie gras in the round
Viognier “Sanford and Benedict” Cold Heaven 2005 (Santa Barbara, CA)

Smoked eel, blood orange “zest,” black radish, chicken skin
Pouilly-Fuisse “La Croix” VV Robert-Denogent 2004 (Burgundy, France)

Melted cheddar, black truffle, crispy potato, powdered toast
Pink Wine Pax 2005 (Sonoma, CA)

Mediterranean bass, edamame-rye bread, chive mashed
Valpolicella Classico Superiore TB Bussola 2003 (Veneto, Italy)

Lamb loin, cucumber, pickled tongue, spicy pear, sorrel
Shiraz “Lloyd Reserve” Coriale Vinyards 2001 (McLaren Vale, South Australia)

Banana puree, hazelnut, coffee, parsnip
Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)

“Creamsicle,” rooibos, squash, orange blossom
Commanderia St. John NV (Lemesos, Cyprus)

Mango jelly-mastic; Milk chocolate-menthol

Champagne toast
Guy Charlemagne Rose Brut NV (Champagne, France)

Many of the dishes are really indescribable. Dufresne and pastry chef Alex Stupak create combinations of ingredients that you’d never imagine together. How, for instance, does one think of smoked eel, blood orange, black radish, and chicken skin? Just to ask the question is to realize how bizarre it is. And how successful. My friend, who said she normally hates eel, loved this dish.

“Foie gras in the round” was another really odd concoction. Somehow, Dufresne managed to produce little pellets of foie gras, each about half the size of a small pea. Incredulous, we asked the server how it was done. He replied that it’s a trade secret, but it involves liquefying foie gras and combining it with another liquid, an explanation that only adds to the mystery.

Each dish is rather small, and sometimes an ingredient is just a dash of crumbs, such as the powdered toast that came with the melted cheddar, or the light dusting of ground coffee that came with the banana puree. Dufresne’s gimmickry does not stand in the way of good solid cooking. The Mediterranean bass was impeccably prepared, as was the lamb loin.

With so many wacky experiments on the menu, not all could be hits. The gooey oyster (our second course) was dull and not very appetizing. But that was really the only course that I could have done without.

The restaurant was full, and service was a bit variable. Several times we were served food before the associated wine pairing arrived. When I asked our server to slow down the parade of courses, he replied, “Sorry, I don’t control the kitchen.” Our reservation was at 9:00, and we didn’t leave till past midnight, so I wouldn’t say we were pushed out the door. Still, it wasn’t an acceptable answer at a restaurant of WD-50’s calibre.

WD-50 is one of the more casual fine-dining restaurants in town, although on the Lower East Side it’s hard to imagine anything more formal. There were guests in sport coats and fancy dresses, and there were guests in t-shirts and jeans. Most were on the young side, although one table was taken by two older ladies.

In 2003, William Grimes of the Times awarded two stars to WD-50, noting Dufresne’s undeniable talent, but also that “diners are more likely to respond with respect than love.” Three years into the experiment, Dufresne is as sure of his palate as an adoring public is sure of him. This was my second visit to WD-50, so I’m fairly confident that this New Year’s Eve performance was no fluke. WD-50 isn’t for everyone, but for those open-minded souls willing to to think broadly, it’s as good a restaurant as there is.

[Update: In March 2007, Frank Bruni of The Times upgraded WD-50 to three stars.]

WD-50 (50 Clinton Street between Stanton and Rivington Streets, Lower East Side)

Food: ***½
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***