Sunday, December 2, 2012


It'd been awhile since I visited a restaurant for the first time and designated it one I'd unequivocably go back to.   Empellon Cocina is TOTALLY go-backable.

  Alex Stupak opened Cocina not long after his success with Tacqueria, but Cocina is a little more stylish... more entree-driven and perhaps slightly more whimsical, although I love Tacqueria too.  Stupak has a grand and unique style, exhibited in his food and the restaurant itself.  The room, sparsely lit with flickery candles and illuminated painting of a beautifully painted Dia de los Muertos-painted woman, exudes an electric, haunting energy, like there is surprise lurking around the candlelit corners.  And, as luck has it, there is.

There are many dishes I would come back for that I didn't sample this first time around:  I so intended to order the squid with black mole and sour orange mayonnaise that by the time it came to order,  I too familiarly overlooked it, like a misplaced object you look at so many times that when you actually need it, you forget that it's there.   I regret forgetting to get it.  I wasn't left with too much wanting after tasting the roasted carrots we got instead, though.   A smokey mole poblano countered their sweetness acquired by a long repose in a hot oven; yogurt and watercress jumped in with a bright tang.  They were pretty, too, studded with a seedy coat and nestling low in a
deep white bowl smeared eerily with a ruddy smudge.  So presentation plays a huge part here, like the big flat banana leaf splayed beneath gently steamed chanterelles dispersed atop a rectangular pabulum of mild, smooth masa polenta, then enlivened with a chipotle-Surryano ham salsa to bring things back up to speed.  Do not bypass the guacamole as your standard appetite-busting chip condiment.  Stupak's guacamole (we tried the pistachio version with masa crisps) is bright and unctuous, flecked with jalapenos and nuts, it almost seems whipped rather than mashed, its texture so silky and fluffy.   And the masa crisps themselves, nutty and hearty, but light, are tremendous on their own.   The salsas (all made in-house) are a rainbow of hues and run the gamut of Scovilles: they range from fruity-juicy to incendiary.  In fact, the hottest one (the Habanera) hits the
 palate with citrus and herbs... and it is only in its after-burn that your taste buds will begin to spasm in protest.  The salsa verde might have been my favorite, though, and also leaves your palate capable of sensing the rest of your meal.  The Tomatillo-Chipotle is a winner, too, smoky and robust, and the smoked cashew has a rich, creamy intrigue.  Order all seven of the jewel-toned lovelies and they might start the party themselves, especially if you're in a decent sized group.  Otherwise, they're fun to play with adding dollops to different dishes, although the well-seasoned concoctions hardly need your amateur adultery.  Go with the
melted Tetilla with shrimp and tomate frito and you might appreciate a couple spoonfuls of salsa the cut the gluttonously rich, stringy cheese.  Served in a searing hot cast iron pan with stacked tortillas, this appetizer is so hearty that unless your either don't plan on finishing it, or are sharing it amongst four or more, it will seriously cut into your main course appetite.  It's like a chewy, scoopable Mexican fondue.  It's delicious.  It is not on Jenny Craig.

Luckily, we showed some restraint leaving a generous amount of the tetilla unconsumed, because entrees demand your full attention (and un-full stomachs).  A thick Wagyu flat iron wallowed in its juices next to a pile of sunny yellow corn, more chewy than creamed, under a flurry of crumbly Mexican cheese.  Crisp, tender tamal fries  are another good receptacle for the salsas, and to soak up more of the
meaty drippings.  A slim filet of black bass lay moist and succulent under its crisped skin, augmented by tiny, crunchy chilaquiles mingled with black beans (which were slightly underdone- kind of
an undesirable kind of crunchy) and richly roasted crowns of
 romanesco.  Leaves of cilantro and rings of chiles compound the Latin flavors, and are probably the verdes component, which are traditionally part of the salsa of the chilaquiles.  But there was no loss in the minor separation.

Stupak's wife, Lauren Resler, stuck with her pastry background (Alex began with pastry at such esteemed kitchen as Alinea and WD-50 ) is in charge of sweets at Empellon.  Trying to decide between the myriad appealing options, we took both our waiter's and chef Stupak's recommendations for the
 pumpkin seed cake.    I suppose I was expecting a more pumpkiny, cakey treat, rather that the layers of pastry and a pumpkin seed-type of marzipan that arrived.  A brown butter sauce glazed the plate along with a drove of juicy triangles of pineapple and lilliputian dollops of whipped cream.   Resler's desserts have a haphazard excess to them, the plates frenetic with drops and drizzles, small mountains of cream and pools of sauce, but it doesn't diminish their tastiness.   I couldn't quite make sense of all of the elements put together, but there were delicious components.  And the desserts definitely perpetuate the creative whimsy that Alex executes on the savory side.

I don't know of another Mexican in the city that channels the authenticity of the original cuisine with such fireworks as there are at Empellon Cocina.  It's not surprising that the tables are full at prime time,  prior and aft, and that the chefs come here after-hours and bee-line there from out of town.  Empellon seeks to discover, interpret and share a love for Mexican cuisine.   Having discovered Cocina, I've interpreted Stupak's cuisine... and I share the love.


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