Empellon Cocina, a modern Mexican spot in Manhattan, doesn’t serve tacos. The policy is clearly stated in a 400 word essay on the website.
Here’s an excerpt: “We are avoiding tacos altogether at this restaurant because we feel that tacos would make our lives too easy, mentally.”
Get your No. 2 pencils, everyone. It’s time for dinner with chef Alex Stupak.
The 32-year-old Stupak bathes squid in an immersion circulator at 59 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, after which it’s seared and paired with a chilhuacle chile and “29 other ingredients.”
Let me simplify: The calamari is mind-numbingly good. The tender spirals of white squid are the correct counterpoint to black mole sauce and seriously smoky chorizo mayonnaise.
That’s the fun part. Stupak’s food is only complicated until you start eating, at which point it becomes delicious.
Empellon’s dark dining room sports a candlelit statue of the Virgin Mary, standing atop “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook,” a culinary Bible that explains how rotary evaporators and liquid nitrogen make everything taste better. Perhaps she is meant to be blessing the food.
A plate of Empellon’s lamb sweetbreads is cooked so soft they’re like a carnivore’s panna cotta, trembling until they burst into a musky bliss.
Stupak used to be the sweets guy at Alinea and WD-50 turning out bendable chocolate and other chemistry experiments disguised as food.
Then he gave up his candy credentials to serve fried pork rinds. Stupak and his wife, pastry chef Lauren Resler, opened their first Empellon in the West Village last year. It serves excellent tacos.
Then in February they gave birth to Empellon Cocina in the East Village. It serves everything else. Sort of.
Can I get some tortilla chips? Nope.
Out come masa crisps in their place. They pack the robust flavor of corn with the unique crunch of Kix breakfast cereal. They’re paired with pistachio-studded guacamole ($12).
Heat comes in many forms. Gentle is the ocean trout, topped with oily roe here, cream cheese there. And just when you think Stupak is deconstructing a bagel, you detect the soft pinch of sal de gusano -- roasted caterpillar-spiked chile salt ($17).
Don’t worry, you can’t taste the caterpillars.
Ratchet up the spice with black bean vermicelli ($15), a South of the Border riff on squid ink spaghetti. The pasta is infused with pasilla oaxaquena, producing a wicked punch that’s like Italian pepperoncini to the power of ten.
Finally arrives the devious habanero salsa. The pink pulp looks like it comes from a peach, but expect at least 15 seconds of sting with each slurp.
Stupak pairs the salsa with Empellon’s best dish: Yucatan tamal colado ($9). A mash of lard-confited chicken thigh sits atop strained masa.
Mull that over with a mezcal margarita ($13) or talk to beverage director (and brother-in-law) Matt Resler about something stronger; this guy speaks tequila as a second language. He might steer beginners towards the El Necio, blending El Capo Blanco with vermouth -- a clean agave martini.
The neutral notes deserve an easygoing, approachable dish like the Chatham cod with chilaquiles verdes.
Advanced imbibers will order the Fidencio Tobala ($16). The mezcal’s spice cuts through the creamy fat of shellfish flan, while the tobacco notes of a Fidencio Madrecuixe ($20) work with lobster covered in tetilla cheese ($19).
The latter dish comes with a side of house made tortillas, and so does the Wagyu tartare ($16). The meat, a bit bland at first, becomes gently more flavorful as it warms up in the tortilla. It’s all quite brilliant.
Stupak is still learning his Mexican ways. His menudo ($14) tastes more like clams than tripe, though some won’t object to that.
Skip the spongy rabbit and order the duck with tinga poblana ($24), a spicy tomato sauce that caused me to devour the dish in five minutes flat, to the horror of my date.
Finish with rice pudding, as airy as foam, or frozen mango mousse, wearing a sexy lime perfume.
Modern Mexican indeed.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most small plates under $20.
Sound Level: Sometimes over 80, but open-air windows and soundproofing keep the acoustics in check.
Inside Tip: Go with a group and share everything.
Special Feature: Over 100 tequilas and mezcals.
Back on My Own Dime: Frequently.
Empellon Cocina is at 105 First Avenue. Information: +1-212-780-0999 or http://www.empellon.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on Broadway and Greg Evans on film.