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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top 100: prune

Every New Yorker complaining about kitchen size and space should at some point venture to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune in the East Village and take a moment on the way to the toilet to peer into the minuscule kitchen and be humbled. With a footprint no larger than most office cubicles, Hamilton turns out effortless, engaging dishes that make you wish you had the forethought – and the energy – to try them at home. Self-explanatory nibbles like fried chickpeas and radishes with sweet butter and kosher salt go down easy while deciding between meaty roasted marrow bones and a spatchcocked poussin. (I opt for both.) Chef Hamilton knows that fat is flavor and she’s not shy about using it liberally. The same might also be said for those no-nos butter and salt. To food Puritans – or anyone presently caught in the austere rage for “new Nordic” – this night be a heresy. To me, however, it soothes like home, which, I expect, Chef Hamilton had in mind all along.

fried chickpeas

radishes and butter

roasted marrow bones

spatchcocked poussin

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death takes a (drinking) holiday

I realize I’m a bit late to the trough but nevertheless let me heap high praise upon the meticulously crafted cocktails being concocted down at Death & Co., where quality is enjoying a triumphant – if expensive – ascendency over quantity. It’s the next best thing to firing up a Dunhill. (Though be warned: you know you’re chasing the zeitgeist when you find yourself on a Saturday lined up at 5:45PM outside a blacked out storefront in the East Village, sandwiched between a quartet of hipsters gents sprouting artfully sculpted facial hair and bedazzled couples from Long Island traveling in packs of six – for safety’s sake, natch.)

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