Until recently, Mexican food wasn't ever on my New York to-do list. I mean, why try to match what I've had in southern Mexico, Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco? But after hearing reports from friends and reading the NY Times review, I decided it was time to change my mind.
Last week, with a friend from California in tow, I made my way through the East Village over to Empellon Cocina. Leaving our west coast suspicions at the door, we enjoyed a vibrant meal, plus a few good cocktails. For anyone who wants just the short story: it was 4-star good (maybe actually a very high 3.5). Some of the meal was incredible. Some was hmm.
And now for the longer story. We started with the almost obligatory guacamole. This appetizer is so good you could easily make a meal of it (along with a drink of course). It's spicy, chunky and has whole pistachios wandering around it. It comes with flatbread crisp (Empellon's take on tortilla chips) that, if you can focus long enough, are delicious even on their own.
Our first dish, roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt and watercress was different, interesting, unusual and good. The mole poblano came in small spicy sheets. The carrots were whole pieces of small carrots, tender to the bite. The carrots were spicy, offset nicely by the yogurt. More watercress would have been nice and, while the dish was served in a bowl, I think I might have preferred it on a plate so I could see the ingredients better and get a little bit of everything in one bite.
After the carrots we had melted tetilla cheese with lobster tomato frito and kol. This dish was really good, as long as you had lobster with your bite, when you didn't it was just cheese (and melted cheese on it's own is only good at a ballgame, on nachos). In a perfect world I probably wouldn't have had this dish. Too much cheese, too much oil dripping from the cheese onto my hand. I wanted more lobster, less cheese. To offset how rich it was we ordered the tomatillo salsa, which was incredible and helped cut the fat of the dish. But we shouldn't have to order something extra to make a dish work better.
Next was squid with potatoes, chorizo mayo and black molé. An incredibly tasty dish with a somewhat messy presentation. It might be that I like my food a little cleaner looking. Less Jackson Pollack more Frank Kelly. But, disregarding the visual, it was spicy and cold, with varying textures. I took bits of the dish, plunked it in a torn off piece of tortilla, added one of the salsas and gobbled it up.
No Mexican restaurant would be complete without clear alcohol and salt. Empellon's bar menu is dense with this and more. Many of the ingredients were entirely new to me, which is fun, but with a cocktail, also scary. I stayed on the safe edges and stuck to the classic margarita, a reposado with a twist: a spicy serrano tincture. So tangy and good I had two, easily downed along with too many chips.
A perfect restaurant has three things in equal amounts: food, service and atmosphere. I'm always sad to see good food come with bad decor. The bar at Empellon Cocina felt like an outdoor pool scene in Miami, a half circle like you see in those swim-up bars. The booths were pleasant but the largest seating area was almost virtually in the dark. It might be that I'm on the border of young and old (and so I shouldn't complain), but really, it was too dark. From the bar, looking towards the back of the space, you can spy the kitchen, bright and clinical, as if it were a lab. The brightness just accentuated the darkness, your iris going big then small. But, if that's my biggest complaint, well...I'll probably still make my way back one day. There's still quite a bit on the menu to try, so I look forward to going back. Maybe brunch?