Boned out into bite-size morsels and topped with fried-garlic guacamole, the chicken wings Alex Stupak serves at the four-seat chef’s table installed this past May at Empellón Cocina (105 First Avenue, 212-780-0999) would confound most tailgaters. Glazed in an earthy grasshopper broth, they put Buffalo to shame, revising the notion of just how much wildness we should expect from our wings. Stupak, the erstwhile pastry pioneer responsible for literally shaping a new technique for malleable ganache, mashes the chapulines themselves in a molcajete for a mezcal-tomatillo-grasshopper salsa. Smoky chiles amp the ante and perfume the bite with ruddy spice. Eating the sauce feels like watching a Werner Herzog–directed sequel to Pixar’s A Bug’s Life.
Stupak spoons his entomological condiment over the wings midway through multi-course tastings served twice nightly adjacent to the restaurant’s semi-open kitchen (a bookshelf obscures the dining room). The extended menus ($95 for 10 courses at 6 p.m., $165 for 22 courses at 8 p.m.) bring to the table some of the city’s most ambitious Mexican cooking: a cerebral, joy-inducing, interactive procession of elaborately composed tastes. They appear minutes apart, like peyote-induced hallucinations, and rile the palate with stupefying combinations.
One moment you’re knocking back frosty glasses of oak-aged El Mayor añejo tequila and flapping your lips against Clamato popsicles, the next you’re overdosing on peach halves marinated in a piquant take on Veracruz’s salsa macha (made with dried chiles and, in place of the customary peanuts, chopped apricot pits that lend a gorgeous almond-like flavor). Then you notice the trompo, a vertical rotisserie like the one at Stupak’s nearby Empellón al Pastor, where the specialty is tacos al pastor (made with chile-rubbed roast pork shoulder and pineapple). Here the spit skewers a whole pineapple, its flesh caramelized from the heat and glistening from a thick slab of pork fat melting down from the top. With fruit shaved into house-made tortillas along with a bit of the fat, the “inverse al pastor” tacos arrive at the meal’s savory climax.
They’re preceded by, among other things, a choose-your-own-adventure salsa concocted with the table’s participation. Deciding between quartets of tomatoes and chiles and debating the virtues of raw versus roasted onions and garlic makes creating the bespoke sauce a gratifying DIY experiment. Ordering one of the modestly priced booze pairings ($30 and $50, respectively) yields a Yonkers lager michelada at this juncture, which you’ll also get to sip with tiny pork-and-greens-stuffed quesadillas and dense cornmeal sopes made with pig’s blood in place of water, brightened with avocado and cotija cheese.
Tacos, quesadillas, chips, and salsa as the focus of meals that cost upward of a Benjamin? It’s a big fat chingate to the recent crop of tasting menus that seemingly exist only to stroke their creators’ egos. Stupak’s got ego to spare, but his introspection in this setting is infectious.
He wants you to know that Mexico was up to its husks in molecular gastronomy long before spherified caviar bounced across the plates of stateside gourmands. Employing nixtamalization (an alkaline chemical reaction that renders normally indigestible raw field corn edible), Stupak applies the 3,000-year-old technique to microwave popcorn kernels, simmering the nixtamalized seeds in popcorn cream for a briny oyster pozole served in the shell.
Eggs are a popular ingredient in Yucatecan cuisine, so sous-chef Aron Pobereskin pops out from behind the kitchen partition to deliver soft, herbal hoja santa leaves wrapped around egg-white omelets filled with habanero, sunflower, and pumpkinseed sikil pak, a spicier take on the luxuriously nutty salsa that’s served with chips in the dining room. The parcels look like Pizza Rat’s alligator-skin luggage and taste endlessly deep and earthy. They’re but one highlight within the endearingly immersive personal tour of Stupak’s love affair with Mexican cuisine, learned through years of the same obsessive determination that made him a darling of the sweets world.
He has lost no swagger in the pastry department, entrusting pastry chef Isabel Coss to drench mini masa waffles in smoked maple syrup and chicken-liver butter and stack quenelles of white sesame and black mole sorbets (one of the evening’s simplest and most astounding plates).
The chef’s cultural excavation extends beyond his kitchen table, but three and a half years since opening this, his most ambitious project, the dining room has seen a number of changes in menu formats and offerings — including the axing of entrées, the introduction of tacos, the addition (and discontinuance) of brunch and a dessert tasting menu, and the reinstatement of main courses. In the wake of a structural overhaul to the space this past spring, you now may demolish cheeseburger tacos at the bar (the recipe for which will feature in the chef’s upcoming taco book) or hot dog tacos anywhere you’d like. The latter have real nuance, with an oddly alluring special sauce of mustard crema mixed with habanero ketchup.
Regular Joes might not purchase front-row seats to soak in the magic of the chef’s counter, but the main room offers plenty of mind-blowing flavors, including chipotle-smothered lobster and a truly exciting jumble of cucumbers shrouded under mounds of lemon ice and dressed with lime-basil oil and black-cumin buttermilk. In contrast to the precision of the tasting menus, however, a few slip-ups (oversalted steak, a gummy epazote flan) do slip in. At the kitchen table, your dining-experience mileage may vary: On one visit my dining companion and I were the only ones to have reserved a seating, so we were treated to a private dinner. Otherwise, you’ll enjoy what Empellón’s website refers to as a shared experience, with perfect strangers who by night’s end are almost guaranteed to be salsa buddies.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 6, 2015