2/08/2012 12:09:00 PM

Empellón Cocina Day One: Alex Stupak Opens His New Upscale Mexican

A dish from Day One of Empellon Cocina 
One of our most anticipated openings of 2012 is now serving in the East Village - Alex Stupak impressed city diners with his take on a taqueria when he opened Empellón last year - so it wasn't surprising when one diner sat down at his new East Village restaurant, Empellón Cocina, studied the menu with a look of befuddlement, and asked, "where are the tacos?" On the first day - there was nary a taco in sight at this more upscale Mexican eatery. But, that's not necessarily a bad thing - there are plenty of interesting things going on at this eatery. Check out our report from the scene of the Cocina's first day in business.

The Food: The question that seems to be on everyone's mind is "how similar will this be to Empellón?" Judging by the menu of the first day, the two restaurants may be cooking Mexican-inspired cuisine, but they are a world apart. While Empellón's slew of tacos seems more casual, you'll find a lot of inventive techniques on the menu here. All of the plates are meant for sharing, and dishes contain ingredients like sea-urchin mousse and crab flan. There are a few gussied up standards like guacamole that's served with pistachios and masa crisps and some things that we've never seen before, like discs of chicken flavored with chorizo spices.

It's a common rule that restaurants need a few weeks to get up and running before reviews come rolling in, but we'll offer two notes of advice about the menu here: 1. Listen to your server - many of the ingredients and techniques are unfamiliar, and they have much to explain. Knowledge only adds to this experience. 2. If the restaurant's infancy is any indication, you should probably make reservations, like, now.

The Space: While the menu is completely different, there were some similarities in the decor of the two sister restaurants. The room is darkly lit, with a few paintings hung around the space that provide brilliant bursts of color. A circular bar and a few pub-height tables greet diners as they walk into the space, who will be watched over by a vibrantly-hued bird's eye if they perch on a stool for a beverage. The rectangular dining room is pretty standard - in addition to the paintings you'll find jars of dried peppers lining the walls and a few more Mexican-looking tchotchkes.

The most light in the room comes from the door of the gleaming kitchen, where you can spy chefs, including Stupak, hard at work.

The Drinks: The list is rife with tequilas and mezcals. A selection of margaritas is served with smoky salt on the rim and big ice cubes cooling the drink. Those looking for something less traditional can try a libation like the Oaxaca '62, a mix of Fidencio Clasico, Cava and Buna Almond Essence with a brown sugar cube plopped into the center of the glass.

The Crowd: It was a fashionable set on day one - we noticed more than one food person in the house. No one was shy about snapping pictures of the dishes as they emerged from the kitchen, photographing away along to a soundtrack of Regina Spektor. There was plenty of room in the restaurant, folks walking by didn't seem to have any trouble being accommodated. Stupak was spied working the room - explaining different techniques to interested parties - and judging by reactions we overheard from fellow diners, plenty of parties were interested.

The Details: 105 First Ave.; 212-780-0999


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