Empellón is Alex Stupak's new Modern Mexican restaurant. It's in a Midtown skyscraper on the corner of Madison and 53rd. I happened to eat there the night before I had my first meal in a long time at Cosme, Mexico City Chef Enrique Olvera's New York outpost (he's opening a new Manhattan restaurant this week; more on that anon).
Eating in these two places successively provided an informative contrast, so I'm writing them up together and posting this in both restaurants' threads. The comparison is very much not to Empellón's benefit.
Empellón is the latest Mexican project from Alex Stupak. Stupak started as a molecular pastry chef, working at Tru, Alinea, and finally WD-50. Feeling an affinity for Mexican food and culture -- he is married to someone of Mexican descent (who now serves as the pastry chef at his restaurants) -- he decided to switch his attention to savories, Mexican in particular. He has opened a series of Mexican restaurants (all named "Empellón" something or other) in New York of varying levels of ambition. This new Empellón simpliciter is his most ambitious essay yet.
The room looks exactly like a restaurant on the ground floor of a Midtown skyscraper. I'm told it gets a big after-work crowd, and I'm not surprised.
And for Midtown after-work bar food, this place is excellent. (Lest I be accused of snobbery, I say that as someone who used to work a few short blocks from this location.) Eating at Empellón by itself, you'd be impressed by how well the food is cooked. Technique is clean; the gunk level is low. Ingredients are respected, and they all taste like themselves, while showing up in unexpected combinations. For example, the raisins in the short rib "confit" provide an interesting semi-sweet flavor accent to a hearty beef dish. The sweetbreads in the lamb-sweetbreads-and-barbacoa tacos are expertly prepped and cooked.
But just go to Cosme and see how that food blows Empellón's away. Cosme is run by Enrique Olvera, the chef at what everyone agrees at least was once the best restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol. Its local chef is Daniela Soto-Innes, a Mexican-American who spent substantial time working in Mexico City, under both Olvera and the chef of the great Nico's.
The food at Cosme has a depth of flavor that blows away everything I had at Empellón. Flavors don't just complement each other; they meld, creating new things-in-themselves that last and last and last: an essential characteristic of Mexican cooking, where you rarely think, "oh, Ingredient X really livens up this dish," but rather think, "this flavor, in the aggregate, shakes my soul" (that sounds stupidly hyperbolic and over-romantic -- but if you haven't been to Mexico, go).
The best way I can describe it is that at Empellón, it tastes like an outsider playing with the forms of Mexican food, whereas at Cosme we are tasting the work of masters of the cuisine.
Now, that raises the dread question of authenticity. I am not saying you have to be a member of the particular ethnic group that generated a cuisine to cook it. But I am going to suggest that if a cuisine has not become predominant like French and Italian, you have to be pretty heavily immersed before you can cook it with authority. I am sorry to say that Chef Stupak just doesn't seem to be there yet.
What did I have at Cosme? I started with an uni tostada with bone marrow salsa, nice, deep. My dining companion chose the cobia al pastor, a good dish (the pineapple puree was delicious) -- but let's face it, while it's an interesting idea, white fish is not going to be as compelling as grilled pork. (Actually, to be fair, if I had this at Contramar I'd probably love it.) Then, the enmoladas, an enchilada drowning in a mole with two kinds of cheese, ricotta and queso fresco. Now this is not the mind-blowing masterpiece that the famous mole dish at Pujol is -- but if there is better Mexican food than this in New York, I haven't had it. You want to talk about deep, multi-dimensional flavor -- here it is in a bowl. My dining companion's salad was good, for leafy greens with cheese and vinegar.
Then, finally, the tongue, which was just as good as The Flon said it would be. The meat is meaty; it tastes like a very good steak. My dining companion ordered the short ribs, which while less "interesting" than Empellón's, were quite simply better: rich and somehow crispy.
When Cosme opened, it pissed me off. Olvera said that he had examined the New York dining scene and determined that New York wasn't open now to fancy restaurants like Pujol; Cosme, he said, would be more casual, both in atmosphere and cuisine. But an interesting thing has happened here: as the place has gotten more and more popular, the food has gotten more and more ambitious. And the food is the better for it: the food is simply better now than it was the year before last. Of course, this has been accompanied by price creep (one dish that has remained on the menu from the outset -- the so-called "signature" duck carnitas for two, which the waiters make a point of trying to sell you -- has almost doubled in price) (and it was never anything like the best thing on the menu!). But on the whole, based on my last meal here, that's worth it. (Nothing could justify their wine mark-ups, though.)
And now, having failed to keep Cosme casual, Olvera and Soto-Innes are opening a new place in Manhattan, Atla, that they claim will be really casual. We'll see how that is.
Meanwhile, Pujol, Olvera's Mexico City mothership, has been closed to be retooled into something more like Cosme. That I'm not happy about. It seems purely finance-driven: a fancy tasting-menu spot like Pujol operates at very low margins, whereas (as Olvera must now have learned) an upper-mid-level place like Cosme can print money. And while the food at Cosme is very good, it simply doesn't approach the heights of even my last meal at Pujol last year (I'd be interested to hear Adrian's comparison of the two restaurants).
Anyway, despite my misgivings, it's nice to see a restaurant improve. And it's nice to have access (such as it is, when a restaurant is as popular and hard to book as this one) to a place as good as Cosme has become.
EMPELLÓN COMP DISCLOSURE: A bunch of desserts.