Entries in Empellón (2)


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: *