Oh man, oh man, oh man – this is good. You know how when you first glance at a menu and before you’re actually reading it, half a dozen dishes practically dance off the page and make nice with your tastebuds? These creations get into your head, they toy with you, entice you, offer themselves to you for a grin and yet you haven’t yet said yay or nay to the guacamole. Which by the way, the answer should be yay. As in yes but also the yippee kind of yay.
It’s a spare but creamy cozy atmosphere with slightly arresting art on the walls, comfortable lighting, fun soundtrack (albeit a bit loud), and a sparkling white kitchen that is delightfully visible (though they might want to diminish the glaring light streaming forth, a problem in the wrong seat). That being said, it all serves as a cool relaxed background for the big draw.
The fun begins with the cocktails. The Empellon Manhattan is fabulous if on the wee side. Hence one adopts the more the merrier style of drinking almost immediately. And why not! The margaritas are exceptionally unique. But I went for a mescal flight as advised by our fabulous server, Hannah. She was our guide to the best of the best on the menu.
And it seems best to share a bunch of plates with the table, then get a little something just for yourself. There are favorites, no doubt about it but they cover a wide range so anyone should be happy. Pork lover to vegetarian. I wouldn’t consider leaving here without having had the aforementioned guacamole. Studded with pistachios, accompanied by a pistachio salsa, you can also add a variety of additional salsas for an extra price. They offer spicy, smoky, nutty, kicky, thickly green, pepper dominant, the seven dwarves of the salsa world. We did that on round two. While their version is something special on its own, it’s the masa crisps that are extraordinary, happily replenished and word up – bring a big bag to sneak them home with. Ha. Just a fantasy.
-Beets with Pickled Maitake Mushrooms, Sorrel & Sikil Pak
-Peeky Toe Crab with Parsnip Juice, Crab Flan and Smoked Cashew Salsa
-Ruby Red Shrimp with Crispy Masa, Sea Urchin Mousse & Lettuces
-Melted Tetilla Cheese with Lobster Tomate Frito & a Yucatan White Sauce
-Squid with Heirloom Potatoes, Chorizo Mayonnaise, & Black Mole
-Scallops with Huitlacoche, Rutabaga & Masa Polenta
-Lamb Sweetbreads with Longaniza Parsley Root & Salsa Papanteca
-Rabbit with Shiitake-Poblano Stuffing & Green Chorize Gravy
The crab was magnificent, layers of bubble and flan and crab, so delicate but blankets your tongue with flavor. The scallops were thick and sweet, the shrimp and uni were almost a palate cleanse in their startlingly fresh brine. And I have to say our waitress suggested the melted cheese and lobster, warning us to be open. Brilliant idea. Wrapped up in a soft warm taco, it was just enough indulgence to make you feel reckless but not overcome! Everything sings, is bright and clean but nuanced with combinations of ingredients that haven’t met before but cling lovingly to each other with contrasting flavors and textures.
Back to the drinking…I started with the Las Nahuales Reposado, the smoky one. Sipped, with a tiny bite of fresh orange slices in between tastes. Followed by the Fidencio Madrecuixe for it’s deeper tobacco notes. Then the spicy Mano Negra Tobala and with dessert there were two choices. I loved the chocolate version that my companions had but my advisor had me on a different path so I finished with a mint infused Scorpion Tobala Jouen. Fantastic every step of the way.
Say it’s your birthday even if it’s not, the special birthday flan is not to be missed. Even the birthday boy self avowed flan hater at our table kept it close to only his spoon. But every dessert is terrific so age doesn’t matter!
Chef Alex Stupak also has Empellon Taqueria across town, his more casual and lovely first foray after having left WD-50 as the legendary pastry chef. Cocina though takes his love for Mexico and gastronomy to exciting heights, a perspective I don’t think we’ve seen in NYC. That in itself is rare and wonderful. As is the food.
105 First Avenue between sixth/seventh street
*Header photo by Angela Carbonetti / http://www.angelacarbonetti.com