March 5, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Smoke and Fire at Empellón Cocina
Surely this is the most elegant guacamole in town, with supernal crisps. Photo: Gael Greene
Maybe it’s the unusual crisps. Layered and rough, almost tweedy. Maybe it’s the remarkable guacamole, studded with bits of pistachio, under a flutter of cilantro leaves. Already I’m wired. Sitting at the bare black wood table at Empellón Cocina, grooving to vaguely familiar music, too loud to say anything intimate. Normally I’d be annoyed, but this ignites dancing queen reveries: Eddie and the Whales. Never heard of them. Led Zeppelin. More like it. I taste the guac, once, twice, again, just to be sure.
All four if us are stymied by the inscrutable cocktail list. I search for a prize. Margaritas go with Mexican food, so why not the “Darkest Corner of Oaxaca” or “Rooster’s Claw?” What is Fidencio Clasico? Buffalo Trace? Illegal Joven. Sounds wicked, threatening - and “The Darkness,” a blend of Mother’s Milk Stout and chorizo-infused Mezcal. Does it really get stirred with black bean sauce?
Alex Stupak is excited by mystery on the menu. He wants us to be too. Photo: Gael Greene
Our bonny server fairly glows, adorable, leaning in, eager to answer questions. I don’t know where to start. I have too many. What is Apple Lambic? Scorpian Tobala? Chipotle Meco? It’s easier to order a house margarita, straight up without the smoked salt. Our friends order margaritas too.
For some it’s the pork rind that counts. For others, life is piggy enough. Photo: Gael Greene
I’ve been made. That explains the bowl of chicharrones with a tumbler of tomatillo-caper salsa that comes unbidden. I can live without fried pork rinds, but now there are half a dozen small bowls of salsa to taste, the salty pig skin a good vehicle. Red, green, rusty brown, sandy beige: salsa de arbol, green sauce, smoked cashew, salsa habanera and chorizo raisin purée, this last, Chef Alex Stupak’s whimsy. Warm tortillas arrive in a covered dish to wrap the smoked ricotta. To smear with salsas too, and taste yet again.
Chicharrones come with tomatillo-caper salsa, but we’re trying them all. Photo: Dot Griffith
It’s dark with a blast of light from the entrance to the open kitchen, though menu descriptions painted on the glass wall tame the glare for tables in the rear corner. A screen lets eaters see chefs in a blur but chefs can’t see eaters.
We’re taking forever to order. I want to try everything, especially lamb sweetbreads with sausage and parsley root and the Oaxacan style baby ribs. I’m letting our companions choose first. They’re overwhelmed by exotic possibilities too. All of us decide and then change our minds and decide again.
Spider-like roasted carrots in a melodramatic mole that haunts me. Photo: Gael Greene
I consider the Peekytoe crab with parsnip juice but order the carrot salad instead. I’m curious. Could any carrot salad top Jean-Georges’ revelation at ABC Kitchen? The shocking truth: yes! This dark Stupak meditation can. It looks mysterious, almost diabolical, black and muddy like a bad dream in a Hitchcock movie or a primal forest, pickled carrot discs and long thin twists of baby carrot dotted with sesame seeds like scorpions on yogurt. The mud is mole poblano, painted on the bowl, with shards of mole tuile-thin as paper, crunchy, sooty, silken, tangy, hot, with watercress leaves to cool it down visually. I keep looking into its depths. It’s like eating a Caravaggio.
Spicy grains nest under the avocado and sunchokes in hazelnut dressing. Photo: Gael Greene
Another bonus from the chef: lush Yucatan-style strained tamal Colado with chicken and achiote is like no other tamale I’ve ever tasted. Tongue sopes with refried beans fade in its shadow, though not the avocado bowl with sunchokes and spicy hazelnut dressing on peppery hot grains.
Sea urchin mousse and ruby red shrimp on crisp masa curlicues. Photo: Don Griffith
It’s always a shock to find shrimp cooked perfectly. These barely poached Ruby Reds ride on curls of masa crisps with sea urchin mousse, a modest sculpture beside crunchy strands of squid painted with chorizo mayonnaise in yet a different mole - chihuacle negro with 29 other ingredients. See the photo: Intimations of Jackson Pollock.
Squid with chorizo mayo and black mole is an homage to Jackson Pollack. Photo: Gael Greene
The menu lists small plates. You might see them as entrées, $16 to $23. Scallops seem sweeter than usual smeared with huitlacoche and plated with rutabaga on masa polenta. Wagyu skirt steak is served in rare chunks with shiitake, radish thins, and red bean chilaquiles: crisps cut into spicy squares. Only the curls of pork loin with pickled red onion that we smear with mustard and tuck into tortillas seem tame.
Paint these pork loin doo-dads with achiote mustard, then wrap in warm tortilla. Photo: Gael Greene
I read Frank Bruni’s vision of the chef-as-raging fanatic in The Times two weeks ago. I tiptoe toward the kitchen timidly, not getting the photo I want. It’s true he is a fire-wielding missionary determined to spread the Book of Mole, the varied Mexican cocina he fell in love with on vacations with his pastry chef-wife Lauren Resler, ex of Babbo. His success at Empellón Taqueria lets him be even more ambitious here. There are 14 different chiles in jars perched atop the off-white leatherette banquette along one wall. I forgot to ask what Moleism had to do with the Virgin Mary in a corner niche.
The Madonna illuminates a small corner in the Temple of Moles. Photo: Dot Griffith
“I wanted to see a Spanish menu with no translations,” he offers as his philosophy of obscurantism. “When I see something unfamiliar on a menu I get excited. The server can explain. The server better know the answer.” Fevertree Tonic? I ask. “It’s a great brand of tonic,” Stupak responds. Yes, there really is black bean sauce in the cocktail called “The Darkness.” The remarkable crisps are wife Lauren’s invention. She makes a tamal batter and spreads it thin. “It has that corn grit I love,” Stupak says.
The crab with parsnip juice and crab flan is an exercise in sensuality. Photo: Gael Greene
“Did you notice how little tomato there is in the salsas? I wanted to do more unusual salsas. Things that are not tomato based, that’s important to me. I want people to discover real Mexican cooking.” The spin that is thrilling comes from the taste of Mexico in his own creative invention.
Lemongrass sorbet with pistachio meringue on green apple gel refreshes. Photo: Dot Griffith
The place has emptied while we eat. At 10, as dessert arrives, the 55 seats are filling again. Not the willowy mannequins you expect in a place with buzz, but youngish couples, foodniks maybe, Yelpers perhaps. Our server gives each of us a bowl of lemongrass sorbet on Greek yogurt with green apple balls, apple gel and rectangles of pistachio meringue – startling and refreshing. Our chocolate cake with sweet mole and masa ice cream that follows is well-mannered, more earnest.
Chocolate cake with mole & masa ice cream by pastry chef Lauren Resler. Photo: Gael Greene
Every morning I awake hoping the day will bring a discovery. A great new chef, a veteran suddenly reborn, at the very least a dish that will haunt me. This BITE is just a first impression of course. But I’m still vibrating from the fusillade of sensation as I hit the chill of First Avenue, already plotting my return.
105 First Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets. 212 780 0999. Sunday and Monday dinner from 5:30 till 10:30 PM. Tuesday through Saturday till 11:30.