Few recent openings have created as much controversy as that of Empellon (“Push”), located just off Sheridan Square at the quizzical corner of West 4th and West 10th. The chef is Alex Stupak, former pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne’s temple of molecular gastronomy, WD~50. Why would one of the city’s most respected dessert makers leave the realm of fondants and foams to open a glorified taqueria? Well, he hasn’t completely abandoned pastries yet—but more about that later.
The restaurant is divided by a long hallway into two rooms. The barroom in front is casual and cacophonous, with dark, sturdy furniture and a mural on one wall that looks like intestines on fire. The rear room is just as noisy, but the décor is more serene, with white brick, pale brocaded wallpaper, and lots of eclectic art, arranged by someone who takes great pleasure in aligning things. The service, though efficient, is somewhat annoying due to the upselling: “Can we start you off with some of our excellent guacamole?” the waitress wheedled, touching my shoulder and smiling sweetly. Don’t answer in the affirmative, because the iconic avocado dip ($10) proves disappointing, delivered cold as if it had languished in the refrigerator, the cilantro wilted and devoid of zip.
The tacos, however, are magnificent. Delivered two to a plate, and expensive in a range of $11 to $17, they’re largely a main ingredient with few distractions, reverent paeans to the product served from Mexican taco trucks all over Gotham. Using his gastronomic prowess, Stupak has sent the flavors soaring. Beef tongue features small cubes of potato mixed with the chef’s arbol chile sauce, turning the glottal organ almost creamy, while chicken is improved with little nuggets of something called “green chorizo,” adding herby notes. Lamb barbacoa modifies the mild barnyard flavor with green olives, sending the taste spinning in a Spanish direction, and—flavored with epazote, an herb that tastes like camphor and axle grease—the mushroom tacos are a choice no herbivore would be disappointed with.
There are seven other sections on the menu, amounting to nearly 25 small dishes. These are extremely uneven, partly because nothing can match the perfection of Stupak’s tacos. Gazing enviously across the street at the success of Sushi Samba, which specializes in creative uses of raw fish, Empellon offers a “white tuna” ceviche incorporating cubes of sustainable albacore with yellow beets and guava froth—a study in contrasting textures that fails to meld into something interesting. Toying with bits of octopus, Stupak eclipses the pleasures of the cephalopod with a thick purée that—though made with parsnips and something called salsa papanteca—tastes like smooshed sweet potatoes.
Indeed, Stupak is all about sauces, many compounded with chilies unfamiliar to mainstream cooking. He is a relentless experimentalist, which obviously reflects his science-chef experience. Notable successes include one wonderful sope ($10) that cradles a runny egg and refried beans in the hand-formed masa vessel. Almost as successful, another features sweet and spicy eggplant hosed with sesame seeds, reminding us of the Arab influence on Mexican cooking. One evening, my table went crazy for the quesadilla—not the Velveeta-between-flour-tortillas bar snack, nor the hand-patted Pueblan mega taco, but a humpy, cheese-oozing empanada—proving that the chef has paid attention to Chicago’s Rick Bayless, who first teased this obscure quesadilla out of the Mexican culinary canon.
For folks who have trouble making a meal of small dishes, the chef recently added six main courses, featuring skirt steak, turbot, baby-back ribs, sweetbreads, scallops, and duckling. I wish he’d stuck to his guns and let Empellon remain a taqueria, because the entrées ($22 to $26) tend to hide sparse amounts of the principal ingredient in a messy landscape of legumes, starches, and sauces. Yes, the spice-rubbed skirt steak is sublime, but there are only five shards of it, and as the lights go down in the dining room around 8 p.m., you’ll have trouble extracting them from the indifferent swamp of ayacote beans.
The menu scores some of its greatest triumphs in the dessert section, under pastry chef Lauren Resler—who is clearly influenced by Stupak’s work at WD~50. There’s a twist on the classic pastel de tres leches that turns the sodden Caribbean cake into intergalactic architecture. Best of all is a chocolate flan ($9) that resembles the skin you may have carefully scraped off the top of your mother’s pudding as a kid. It’s just as much work scouring it from the plate—but then your mom won’t be there telling you not to play with your food.