This is what the nouvelle Mexican cuisine of some New York restaurants should be called. Some people just don't know how to leave well enough (or genius, in the case of Mexican food) alone. This is the case of Empellón Cocina, a super hyped, expensive new Mexican restaurant that has some critics raving. Not yours truly.
It's not that the food at Empellón Cocina is bad. Some of it is very tasty. But it suffers from ongepatchket-ness. This is a priceless Yiddish word meant to describe the overdone and over the top when it comes to food, furniture and fashion. For instance, Christian Lacroix: ongepatchket; Early Prada: not ongepatchket. Rococo: ongepatchket; Mid Century Modern, not ongepatchket. You get the idea.
My mom used to couple the word when referring to overloaded fashions, foods, or decor with an expression of profound disdain.
I went to dinner with my good friend Seth. We started out with an appetizer of chicharrones with a wonderful warm green salsa of capers and tomatillo. No one ever heard of capers in tomatillo salsa, but this was truly delicious. The chicharrones were perfect and fluffy and almost ethereal, no hairs, stringiness, hardness or burns of any kind, as you are wont to find in the big pieces of fresh chicharrón that are sold by the giant bag in Mexico. Here they were so perfect and airy they lacked a bit of oomph.
I ordered the margarita with mezcal, up with salt and it was a wonderful, wonderful drink, served in a classic margarita glass (not a fish tank), with what they called smoked salt.
We also started with the gordita with smoked plantain, chorizo and egg yolk (au cheval, as they say in French) and the sopecitos de lengua with salsa de árbol (tongue sopes). Here is where things started derailing a bit. There is no doubt that the quality of the ingredients is top notch and so is the preparation. The corn masa is very good. But chef Alex Stupak apparently never met an ingredient he didn't like. He uses five more ingredients in everything when five less will suffice. Hence, ongepatchket.
The gordita, for instance, comes garnished with two spears of romaine lettuce. This is out of Ionesco. Romaine doesn't add anything. If it's meant as a joke, it doesn't land the punchline. An actual gordita you may have at a market is a round, thick, fluffy fried disk of corn masa filled with beans or, if you are lucky, pressed chicharrón. This one had refried "smoked" plantains on the side, which were very yummy and looked like refried beans. But I don't remember the chorizo nor the yolk, because it was all rather dainty. The sopecitos were tiny chunky disks of fried masa with beans. The beans were good. They did not have the overload of cumin that is the mark of typical bad Mexican food in America. The tongue I could barely taste, because there wasn't much of it and the salsa de árbol tasted like a better version of the Valentina hot sauce that comes from a bottle. It's not that it tastes bad, but that it's the kind of tangy hot sauce you drizzle on raw fruits and carrots or jicama or cucumbers, not on cooked food. This is how much of a Mexican fineshmecker I am.
For entrees I had the Maine diver scallops with Surryano (?) ham and chilaquiles verdes. The scallops (all two of them) were cooked to perfection, plump and delicious. The ham with a weird name was chewy and bacony. But the chilaquiles were tiny squares of fried masa with a puny drizzle of green sauce. They tasted like good chilaquiles allright, and it is smart to do a mini version of them to avoid overpowering the seafood, but that may be why Mexicans wouldn't dream of putting scallops next to chilaquiles in the first place. A sense of proportion. In this case, the totally unnecessary ingredient -- you are never going to guess -- was peas. Peas as in English peas, mealy, bland and utterly out of place with everything else. The dish would be much better without them. This was served in a little cast iron dish and set us back $21. Which I find rather outrageous. This is the other thing that gets my goat about the precious new Mexican restaurants in NY. The prices look reasonable on the menu but turn out to be a bit of a ripoff when you see the size of the portions. A gordita, i.e. street food, for $8 is some sort of bad cosmic joke. Empellón charges $3 per salsa, whereas the humblest taco stand in Mexico gives you three or more generously sized bowls of different salsas for free.
Seth trusted my instincts, which at that point were to stay away from dishes with 29 ingredients, so he ordered the Estofado de costillas, a Oaxacan style baby back rib stew with plantains and pineapple, that was very bland and totally unsuccessful. Sorry, Seth. You are welcome to exact revenge any time. Boiled tofu should do the trick.
I couldn't believe that the dessert menu included a strawberry gaznate (gahz-nah-teh). Gaznates are the cheap Mexican version of cannoli. They are sold only on the street and they are always predictably awful. Maybe the original ones were made with real strawberry or vanilla cream filling, but the current version is made with industrial grade, petroleum-based whipped cream and pink food coloring. I was curious to see what would become of the lowly gaznate in a fancy restaurant. Well, it was certainly the best gaznate I ever had. The dough was crispy and tasted slightly better than the street version; the filling was superior to the authentic one, but basically strawberry fluff; sweet in a way that got boring quickly. I feel bad being such a bitch about it since I told the waiter the story of gaznates, he went and told the pastry chef and they comped us the dessert. If you told any Mexican that you paid $8 for a gaznate, however glorified, they would die laughing.
I had a wonderful time with Seth and some of the bites were very good, the service was crisp and professional, but in the end the overall effect was not as sublime as I'm sure the hardworking chef intends. He is quite gifted, but some ingredient editing may do him wonders.
Now get me two pastores con todo, asap.
Here's part of the menu. You tell me if it doesn't sound like the Rococo of Mexican food: