Restaurant: Empellón Cocina
Cuisine: Mexican/Modern American/Eclectic
Last visited: March 12, 2014
Phone: +1 212-780-0999
Location: Manhattan, NY (East Village)
Address: 105 1st Ave
Price Range: $30-50+ (about $50/person)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!
- Opened February 2012
- Owner/Executive Chef Alex Stupak
- Modern Mexican cuisine
- Seasonal menu
- Daily features
- Modern/trendy ambiance
- Casual, but sophisticated
- Good for groups
- Hot spot
- Sister to Empellón Taqueria
- Tequila/Mezcal focused
- Beer and wine options
- Tues-Sat – 5:30pm – 11:30pm
- Closed Sundays and Mondays
- Reservations recommended
**Recommendations: Pistachio Guacamole, Sikil Pak Salsa, Smoked Cashew Salsa, Roasted Carrots, Brussels Sprouts Taco, Carnitas Taco
If you aren’t following Empellon or owner/chef Alex Stupak on Instagram, you should probably get on that. It’s food porn at its best and it makes you want to book a ticket to New York right away. That’s why when I launched my “Follow Me Foodie to New York: Restaurants worth flying for” series presented by Cathay Pacific, I put it as high priority.
It was a must try and I’ve had it on my bucket list since it opened. Not only that, but it came highly recommended by Grant Achatz’s partner who I happened to sit next to at the 2nd Annual First Harvest dinner at The Willows Inn on Lummi Island (another restaurant worth flying for). Given that Stupak worked alongside Achatz at Alinea in Chicago as their pastry chef, I wasn’t surprised with their support.
It’s usually quite busy and lively, but I made my reservation when the doors opened. I came by myself and I would usually sit at the bar, but because there was no open kitchen and the lighting was better at the tables, I took a table (for food photos). It has a modern and youthful vibe and it’s ideal for groups of 2-3. I actually like dining solo and do it often especially when I travel, but I probably would have enjoyed my experience better with company since the plates are designed to be shared. That being said, I still liked the ambiance and it was casual, yet sophisticated.
Stupak opened Empellón Cocina shortly after opening Empellón Taqueria both located in New York. He had no experience cooking Mexican food, but he loved eating it, so after finding private investors he opened Empellón(s). He attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of Arts in New York and has worked as a savoury chef at some of America’s top restaurants, but ended up in pastries even though it wasn’t his original plan. He is known as a star pastry chef and made a name for himself after working pastries at Alinea and Wylie Dufresne’s wd~50 in New York.
Pastry chefs tend to be excellent at the art of plating and presentation. It’s something about desserts, and even food photographers know they photograph well. The colours and components just make for beautiful results and it is no different here, except it also applies to the savoury courses. Stupak creates the savoury and sweet menu which is impressive, yet risky because it is no easy task. Few chefs do an excellent job at both and the positions require different personalities, culinary knowledge and skills.
I tried more savoury dishes than I did sweet and I wouldn’t have guessed he was a pastry chef because the savoury dishes were better than expected. That being said, they still didn’t deliver as strong in taste and aesthetics won over for the most part.
The food was modern Mexican meets modern American and his training from avant-garde and modernist restaurants was obvious. There were no crazy gimmicks and nothing over-the-top, but he still used modernist techniques and the plating portrayed that style. The dishes were lighter, more delicate and refined than stereotypical Mexican food and there was an elegance to every dish.
Empellón Cocina is not about achieving “authenticity”. Stupak is inspired by it, but does not copy it, and he makes the effort to research the cuisine. The food is not created randomly and blindly without proper knowledge and the menu and recipes respect traditional Mexican food and its distinct regions, specifically Oaxaca (which I recently visited – see Follow Me Foodie to Mexico City & Oaxaca). He has fun with the menu and puts his personality into it showing an unique side of Mexican food that is modern without being bastardized.
I always ask my server for recommendations and his suggestions were things I wasn’t really considering, so I was a bit hesitate. I was eyeing the sweetbreads, chilled shrimp with sea urchin mousse, scallops with lemon curd, and squid with sour orange mayonnaise, but none of those were suggested. I ended up giving in because he seemed passionate about his choices and he stressed that he ate everything, just like me. So I went ahead with his choices which I found were decent, but I feel as though it could get better and we might just have had different tastes. I’d still go back to try more dishes because I’m not sure I got a good grasp of what they do based on what I tried.
I was most impressed by the presentation of the dishes, although the food still had effort and was given equal time and care in execution. I just found the flavours a bit unbalanced and the menu was hit and miss, so I would approach it with selective ordering which is hard to do. I don’t know the menu well enough to figure out the strengths and weaknesses, but hopefully the menu gets stronger and more consistent with time. It’s promising since it’s only a couple years old and the chef is young, yet incredibly experienced having trained with some of the top chefs in North America. I have high hopes for it as a current hot spot on the rise.
This was the best part of the menu. I loved it. See my post: Should food photography be allowed?
On the table:
- Served with masa crisps $15
- I didn’t think I needed to order all 7 salsas (available a la carte too), but the combination was the best value and apparently the Pistachio Guacamole is a must try.
- The guacamole and salsas come with house made masa crisps which I wanted a bag of.
- Apples and oranges, but I preferred them to tortilla chips.
- The masa crisps were dehydrated and they were lighter, not greasy, and nutty in flavour.
- They were thin, flat and crisp cracker-like crisps.
- They were healthier than tortilla chips and they tasted healthy too, but in a good way.
- $9 a la carte
- I love guacamole and pistachios, so this sounded perfect already.
- It was a mash of avocados, extra-virgin olive oil, minced white onion, lime juice, cilantro and jalapeños with coarsly chopped and toasted pistachios sprinkled on top.
- There were some pistachios mixed into the guacamole albeit not many, but there was no guacamole paste or pistachio flavour in the guacamole mash itself.
- I was hoping the pistachios would be more incorporated into the guacamole rather than being simply sprinkled on top, but I still liked it.
- I loved the crunch of the pistachios and pistachios and avocado have a similar flavour profile, both rich and buttery. They were complementary.
- The recipe for the guacamole was pretty traditional to how they make it in Mexico – no cumin/garlic etc.
- Authentically they don’t even use lime – see #5 in my post Follow Me Foodie to Mexico: 10 Facts & Myths about Mexican Cuisine.
- Served with masa crisps. $3/each or all 7 with pistachio guacamole for $15
- **Sikil Pak (pumpkin seeds, tomato, onion, garlic, cinnamon, epazote, sour orange juice, serrano)
- It was sweet and savoury and different. I could taste flavours of vanilla, cinnamon and the pumpkin seeds.
- **Smoked Cashew (smoked cashews, chipotle)
- It was thinner than I’m used to, but I loved how smoky it was.
- It was a bit like thin yogurt in texture, but it is dairy-free.
- It’s salty, nutty, sweet, tangy, smoky, and savoury.
- See the recipe here.
- Salsa Borracha (pasilla Oaxaquena, orange juice, mezcal)
- This was another sweet and spicy salsa and I could taste a bit of the Mezcal.
- Salsa Verde (tomatillo, cilantro, serrano)
- Tomatillo-Chipotle (chipotle, roasted tomatillos, roasted garlic, honey)
- Salsa de Arbol (arbol, cider vinegar, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, spices)
- Salsa Habanera (habanero, orange juice, grapefruit, Mexican oregano)
- The salsas went from mild to spicy and they were all a bit thin and some should have been thicker like the Sikil Pak and Smoked Cashew.
- That being said, I recommend the Sikil Pak and Smoked Cashew because they were different.
- The Tomatillo-Chipotle and Salsa Arbol were also very good if you like spicier.
- Burnt jalapeño hummus, crema, cotija cheese $8
- I wouldn’t have ordered another dip, but it came highly recommended. I love hummus, so why not?
- This was exactly what it sounded like and I was hoping for more.
- The whole black beans were layered on top of the black bean and burnt jalapeño hummus, and it all tasted very similar.
- The hummus was too salty though and I think the beans were cooked in overly salted water. I have a high tolerance for salt too.
- The cotija cheese on top added to the saltiness and there was not much savoury flavour, but just salty.
- I didn’t even get much heat from the jalapeño and there was no smokiness, sweetness or acidity.
- I got a bit of unexpected rosemary though, but otherwise I found it quite flat and ordinary.
- I was most infatuated by the black-out plate.
- The white plate was brushed with black bean and torched to finish.
- I thought this was really neat. I’m not sure it did anything flavour-wise since all the components tasted the same, but I liked the idea.
- I mentioned black food and beans as 2 of my Top 10 Food Trends in 2014.
The black bean hummus came with fresh and warm house made tortillas. They were so soft, thin, and melt in your mouth tender. They were not made with corn, but they were excellent. I actually enjoyed the hummus with textural contrast though, so I ate it with the masa crisps.
- Mole Poblano, yogurt, watercress $10
- Oh god… this was amazing. I would have overlooked it, but again it was highly recommended.
- What an unassuming dish! I could eat it everyday.
- It was brown butter infused yogurt, brown butter poached and roasted heirloom carrots, sliced pickled carrots, toasted sesame seeds, sweet mole poblano, and watercress leaves.
- The carrots and components were savoury with intense umami (from the brown butter) and every bite was as good as the first.
- The texture of the carrots were a bit squishy and they were caramelized and naturally sweet.
- They weren’t too soft though and still had a meaty bite.
- Every bite of carrot almost squirted brown butter and they just absorbed so much flavour and sauce.
- I’m fairly confident they were sous vide first to achieve that sort of texture and savoury intensity.
- I think they were honey glazed and a couple carrots were coated with toasted sesame seeds which I loved.
- The quality of carrots was excellent which is always key to minimalistic and ingredient focused dishes like these.
- The mole poblano sauce covered the bottom of the dish and it made for an excellent dip.
- It was sweet and very smoky and I could taste flavours of cocoa, cloves, cinnamon and all spice in it.
- There was also nutty ground almonds, sweet raisins and dried chilies blended in, which is typical of mole-negro.
- It was smooth in texture and had depth of flavour with many layers to it.
- There were some mole poblano flavoured dehydrated crisps too and they were almost transparent like glass shards.
- They were sweet and chocolaty and gave the dish texture and flavour.
- The dollops of savoury brown butter Greek yogurt helped with acidity too – naturally from the yogurt.
- It played well with the chocolaty rich sauce and sweet carrots.
- I named “carrots” as one of my Top 10 Food Trends in 2014 as well.
- Arbol chile, lime, Peekytoe Crab salad $18
- This dish was gorgeous! I couldn’t stop taking photos of it.
- It was delicate and dainty and it looked like dessert.
- I had remembered seeing it on Instagram and now it was real.
- I ordered it because it came recommended, but otherwise I might have skipped it since it was another veggie/salad course.
- Presentation was excellent, but unfortunately the flavours weren’t as well delivered.
- It was sheets of chilled Jamaican Mango which I’ve never had before, and I found it more tart than sweet.
- I’m not sure if it was ripe, but it didn’t seem like it.
- The sheets of mango were a bit crunchy and there was a lot of them.
- Some were sprinkled with chili powder for a bit of heat.
- The ratio of mango and crab was unbalanced and the crab was found underneath.
- The crab was very simple and lightly dressed with maybe a touch of mayo, salt, and then capers.
- The crab salad wasn’t that special, but the crab was fresh and moist however too salty again.
- Again I have a high tolerance for salt, but the added salt with the capers was a lot.
- There was a well made lime foam on top of the mango which was whipped.
- It held its shape well from the xantham gum and it was nice and thick.
- The salty capers and tart semi-sweet mangoes didn’t really go, so I didn’t enjoy the mangoes eaten together with the crab salad which defeated the purpose.
- There wasn’t enough sweetness or acidity and the capers just threw off any balance. I like capers too.
- It didn’t have the flavours of a papaya salad or Asian mango salad and it just got lost in translation when it came to taste.
Normally the tacos come in orders of 2 or 3, so it was nice of them to make an exception for me since I was only one. They took initiative and were accommodating without me even asking for single tacos. I really appreciated the service and hospitality. I originally ordered the pastrami short rib taco as well, but they forgot it which I didn’t mind since I was starting to fill up.
- Salsa verde marmalade $12 for 2 / $18 for 3
- This is the popular favourite and it was my favourite of the 3.
- It was not a typical carnitas taco and it was healthier and lighter with a complete different flavour profile.
- The pork shoulder was sous vide for 3 days and it was moist and tender.
- It came with too much salsa verde marmalade though which was very sweet like jam with no acid.
- I could have used more savoury because the generous amount of jam was making it dessert-like.
- It’s not comparable, but I do prefer the flavours of traditional Mexican carnitas.
- Almond mole $10 for 2 / $15 for 3
- When it comes to vegetarian tacos, the Crispy Cauliflower Taco from Grand Electric still reigns supreme. Apples and oranges, but worth mentioning.
- I love brussels sprouts and the flavours were great, but I enjoyed it more as a vegetable side dish than I did as a taco.
- The baby brussels sprouts were caramelized, soft and tender, and there were crispy brussels sprout leaves for textural contrast.
- I loved the savoury and nutty almond mole sauce, but I needed more because I didn’t get enough in each bite.
- There was some salty cotija cheese and toasted sliced almonds on top for extra crunch.
- The tortillas were roti like and they were good, but in this context with the brussels sprouts it came across as a filler.
- Cauliflower and caper raisin emulsion $14 for 2 / $21 for 3
- This was the daily special and I love Jean-Georges in New York, so I was expecting something excellent if the recipe was copied or similar.
- Again, I found this more enjoyable as a plated appetizer rather than a taco.
- The beautiful scallops just didn’t suit being in a taco and I found it kind of a waste to eat them wrapped in a soft tortilla shell.
- However, if they were on a hard taco shell I would have liked it for the textural contrast.
- Every bite I was either getting only cauliflower or only scallop, but even together the pieces were too big and there was no real cohesiveness.
- It almost seemed too deconstructed and the cauliflower was not caramelized and still crunchy.
- The raisin-caper emulsion was tangy, salty and sweet, and I missed some texture from actual capers and raisins (but I’m not sure if that would have helped).
- The beautifully seared scallops were the highlight of the plate, but that’s also something quite simple and easily appreciated.
- Whipped cream, jackfruit, mezcal toffee, tangerine ice $7
- Of course I had to order dessert. I always do, but here I was really anticipating it considering Stupak is a rock star pastry chef. I let him pick the dessert.
- This was the fruity dessert and it was almost a palate cleanser.
- It was a tangerine-gooseberry sorbet ice capsule filled with a little mezcal spiked dulce de leche or toffee.
- The pate des fruits were quite rough around the edges and heavily coated in crunchy sugar.
- It was a refreshing dessert with fruit popsicle qualities, but again it presented stronger than it tasted.
- It was still a good dessert, but I think I set my expectations too high.
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