top 100 (off shoot edition): empellon cocina

Taking a breather from the official Top 100, let me briefly sing the praises of a worthy spin-off. Wunderkind chef Alex Stupak reinvigorated New York’s tired ideas about Mexican food two years ago when he opened Empellon in the West Village. The casual, convivial tacqueria with the unpretentious atmosphere belied the chef’s interpretive – and elevated – take on Mexican: chicharonnes arrived at the table piping hot, noisy as a bowl of Rice Krispies; sweetbreads, maitake muchrooms, and pastrami  became fodder for tacos the likes of which you couldn’t stop eating; and then there was the seductive slate of outrageous salsa – habanero grapefruit, spicy salsa de arbol, pasilla mezcal, and my favorite, smokey cashew. For New Yorkers too long forced to endure the banalities of overstuffed enchiladas, or even worse, burritos, Empellon was a beacon of hope, appropriately south of the 14th Street border. With Empellon Cocina at the front lines of the East Village, Stupak continues his journey, refining his  cuisine by way of creatively composed plates. No need to worry about things getting too haughty, however: a pistachio-flecked guacamole is still an essential beginning. Served with earthy crisps of warm masa, you’ll never be able to look at mere mortal “chips” the same way again. Roasted carrots tangle with mole poblano and watercress in a beautifully calibrated starter. The lusty flavor of fried lamb sweetbreads is set off by nuggets of parsnip and cleverly cut with sliced radish and a sweet salsa papanteca made with pumpkin seeds. Chef Stupak obviously believes that texture deserves a pride of place usually accorded solely to flavor and he proves it in dish after dish. (Even the mezcal comes with slices of orange dusted with ground, salty chapulines.) Without sacrificing the integrity of any single element, his plates come together greater than the sum of their parts. The sociable atmosphere at Cocina is as buoyant as the list of tequila is long, but don’t be fooled by the noise: there is serious business going on in the kitchen.

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sol cocina

pomegranate guacamole

One of the things I love most about Southern California is how I’m able to indulge in my fetish for Mexican food. Proximity to the border combined with an abundant Latino population make this part of the country one of the best areas outside of Mexico to go in search of regional flavors. More surprising is when you happen to stumble upon a place that’s creatively marrying authentic ingredients with the ethos of California cuisine. Chef Deborah Schneider’s Sol Cocina is such a place. Simple, quick and fresh are the bywords of Baja-style cooking and Sol, with an open kitchen and counter seating not unlike a Baja taco bar, embraces the peculiarities of that peninsula with a winning menu heavily dependent on seasonal ingredients. Like pomegranate seeds, which pepper a guacamole already studded with walnuts and crumbled queso fresco. And white corn, blended with spicy roasted poblanos into a velvety puree with crema and pepitas. (Applause, too, for the brilliant idea of offering a substantial ‘taste’ at the bargain price of $2.50)  There’s only one word that can accurately encapsulate the sweet corn on the cob, grilled with butter, lime, chiles and drizzled with chipotle and cotixa cheese and that’s “sick,” as in I would be happy to eat this in such reckless quantities that I ultimately make myself sick. Tacos have their own surprises: the Vampiro is a double tortilla stuffed with melted cheese and serrano chile, topped with locally sourced carne asada, pico de gallo and cotixa; wild-caught fish is pan-roasted with lemon and garlic in the Gobernador, a refreshing change of pace from your bog standard Ensenda-style deep fry. I should have planned better in preparation for this meal; there are too many temptations on the menu:  shortribs braised with guajillos, green pozole, pork pibil roasted in banana leaves, and a mammoth grilled burrito that looks like a panini on steroids as it passes me by en route to some lucky table. Then again, such seduction is all part of the fun of eating here in SoCal: otro hermoso día, otra comida magnífica.

white corn & pobano soup

grilled sweet corn

taco vampiro & fish taco

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the sweet suite life

A morning pool swim and scrambled eggs “rancheros” with a side of chorizo: now this is what I call room service. I’m going to miss the Rosewood’s version of the sweet suite life.

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guess who’s coming to dinner?

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cormorant sunset

I’ve been observing these beautiful black birds from my safety of my pool over the past few days as they dive into the lagoon to catch a snack of fish. Tonight, however, they are perched on the roofline, holding their wings out as if in supplication to the sun as it slinks past the horizon.

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making waves

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making sense

If there’s one thing that can lure me out of my lair it’s a trip to the spa, which at Rosewood Mayakoba is tucked into the jungle on its own private island. I’m getting a taste of what’s to come in celebration of the end of the Mayan calendar – or what some pessimistic folks are calling the Mayan Apocalypse. Emmanuel Arroyo, Spa Director at Sense, A Rosewood Spa, is one of the optimists, however. “The end of the calendar on December 21st isn’t the end of the world but the end of a cycle,” he tells me while showing off the unobtrusively expansive facilities. “A new cycle is beginning; and with that comes the promise of renewal.” All of which sounds like the perfect excuse to be a pampered guinea pig for the 2 1/2 hour Mayan Equinox Ritual, which begins with a blessing of copal, the ceremonial incense used by Mayan warriors before going into battle. Afterwards comes a full-body jade exfoliation, a gold-infused wrap and mask to nourish and protect the skin, and a 90-minute mineralizing massage that incorporates silver. A word to the wise: they might want to think about rechristening the treatment - something more akin to Mayan Warrior, perhaps? – because far from feeling like I need to scraped off the table at the end, I feel revitalized, armed, and ready to conquer. Maybe the time has come for me to seize the beach.

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rosewood mayakoba

In case you’re wondering why I have virtually no desire to leave my suite, maybe I should share with you where it is I am exactly; Rosewood Mayakoba, about 40 minutes south of Cancun along the Riviera Maya. On arrival I was transported by a luxury boat to what amounts to my own personal sanctuary: a one-of-a-kind over-water suite of crisp, open spaces, floating graciously over the lagoon’s emerald waters. Strikingly modern in design yet crafted from such indigenous materials as to appear born of the jungle, I have an inviting lounge terrace with a plunge pool, a luxurious bathroom with an outdoor garden shower, and spectacular views of the lagoon and mangroves. Sure, the sea is calling my name – but I don’t feel compelled to move a muscle just yet.

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pool 1, beach 0

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mexican standoff

Taking a quick hop down to Mexico for a few days of disconnect, I find myself immediately in the middle of a Mexican stand-off: beach or pool? The salty, cerulean water of the Riviera Maya is clear and inviting. But so is the private pool in my over-water suite among the mangroves. Decisions, decisions.

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rice delights

Yhi Spa at Paradisus Playa del Carmen is wedged both physically and philosophically in the middle of the Cancan to Tulum hi-lo continuum, a potent reminder that sometimes it’s not about the brand but the breeding. Yhi might not be well known in the wellness world but that shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of it’s pedigree – or its commitment to authenticity. The signature treatments in this particular spa are a reminder that maize wasn’t the only grain prized by the local Mayans – they had quite the taste for rice, too. Beyond pairing it with beans, natch. Whether used as an extract or oil, its natural antioxidants were valued for inhibiting free radicals. Used as a water, rice has moisturizing and softening actions, improving the flexibility of skin with a healthy dose of Vitamin E. After an afternoon spent soaking up too much sun, Rice Delight proved the perfect palliative for me: a double dose of exfoliation and massage using rice in all its permutations. Rich in both proteins and amino acids, it left my skin as smooth as silk, proving that sometimes a happy medium is a happy place indeed.

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talk to the hand (or sit on it)

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hotel paradise

For all their friendly hospitality, Mexican hotels almost uniformly miss the mark to some degree. It’s never tragic mind you; in fact it’s often nothing more than a curious detail that leaves you to scratch your head, bewildered by a corporate thought process which somehow led to a jar of mustard arriving alongside an egg white omelet, or an artful turndown arrangement of bed pillows in the bathtub, or plush bathrobes atop paper slippers in the spa. (I will go on record, however, with enthusiastically vocal admiration for the novel Mexican art of twisting humble bath towels into fancifully shaped flowers and swans.) Brain power has obviously been extended into these little flourishes. But to what end? What does it add?  All this blather is just a long introduction to telling you how Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Perla & La Esmeralda, twined resorts which share a common zocalo yet somehow manage to navigate the task of catering to – and keeping separate – both families and adults, proves a refreshing exception to the rule. Attention has been paid here. And a great deal of thought and design have gone into Paradisus: La Esmeralda is for families, while La Perla is adults-only. Opt for Royal Service – a semi resort within the resort – and the two need never intersect. Royal Service features a private pool, bar, and an exclusive restaurant surrounded by palapas and Bali beds – in addition to a private stretch of  beach. Discrete butlers are at your beck and call, available for everything from ironing trousers to finding a preferred table at Passion by Martin Berasategui, a restaurant collaboration with the seven Michelin-star Basque chef. (Surely that’s a first for an all-inclusive resort.) Each resort is its own oasis, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico – with the stress-free luxury of never having to reach for your wallet.

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supine beach views

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video: almost a sunrise

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