mercado san juan

top 100: the dutch

Of all the noisy restaurants in this abominably loud city to Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch must go the dubious distinction of sporting the most inexplicably ear-splitting acoustics. While the decor is a pleasingly comfortable homespun ode to American earnestness, the decibel level makes it a little like dining on the verge of the BQE or trying to eat in the mosh pit of a rock concert: you live in fear of being bumped from all sides because honestly, there’s no way a group of ordinary humans could be THIS LOUD. I want to make the font larger, the bold bolder, the caps more capital to emphasize just how loud the hive is because even for a Saturday night in Soho it is VERY, VERY LOUD!  And that takes away from the food, I fear, which is pretty darn delicious from soup to nuts. As twilight gently envelope a momentarily quiet corner window table we start with Jersey asparagus because – smelly pee be damned – ’tis the season for asparagus. (In food fetish circles mid-May generally marks the time ramps relinquish their crown to the noble asparagi) Fragrant, toothsome, adorned with the slightest hint of tarragon and the buttery yolk of a fried – versus poached – egg, it’s like eating stalks of spring: verdant, earthy, and above all, vital. Steak tartare is equally alive, the beef tasting of its grassy diet and topped with white anchovy and a piquant dollop of caesar salad. A dozen New England oysters follow: meaty Massachusetts Peter’s Point and Rhody Matunucks thick with brine. Maybe it was the first round of cocktails – for me, The Last Oaxacan, a smoky mix of yellow Chartreuse and pineapple infused Mezcal; an aromatic blend of Thai basil, kaffir lime and vodka for my partner in crime, the Cassia Blossom – or the first bottle of Trimbach, but it’s at this point I notice we are speaking quite loudly while leaning in across the table to listen to each other. When main courses arrive we pay significantly more attention to our plates because it’s a losing battle trying converse at a sufficient volume while not shooting torpedos of food at the person across from you. It’s a taste-a-palooza, however, so we’re both happy to shut up and dig in. I’ve got five plump sea scallops glazed with bacon jam, jalapeno and kumquat. It’s a smoky-spicy-citrus trifecta that makes me want to shout “Yahtzee!” Across the table, my friend has a bowl of tarragon-roasted chicken with morels and charred leeks. The earthy smells perfume the table like narcotics and we happily pass plates back and forth in silence, like a joint shared at the beach – as oblivious to the noise as the crash of the surf. It’s a happy spell of satiety that’s cast, made even better by dessert – an ethereal banana cream pie that makes me yearn for summer. In fact everything this evening, save the noise, has been so seasonally focused that it has me looking forward to what might follow: summer corn, blueberries, and sea bass; autumn lamb, apples, and winter game. Chef Carmellini, you can cook for me anytime. But could you find a way to keep it down just a bit?


top 100: empellón taqueria

The best part about the Top 100 project? Simple: stuffing myself silly. Yet it’s not  as easy it sounds. With the exception of a few casual establishments my dining experiences to date have been notable for a measured degree of formality. (Perhaps that’s the true price of a $300 dinner for two.) At times you’d almost be excused for thinking the only way to get an exceptional meal in this city was to suffer through a multi-course tasting menu in a suit and tie. Not so at Empellón, thankfully – or Empellón Taqueira as it’s now called. Chef Alex Stupak’s wise and wonderful interpretation of la cocina Mexicana may be civilized down to its crunchy chilaquiles but that shouldn’t stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting down ‘n’ dirty. Begin with a bowl of guacamole, which is studded with cashews and comes accompanied by two salsas, tangy red arbol for purists and a smoky cashew that seems tailor-made for hedonists. (Put me in the latter camp; I appreciate the red sauce, but I’d happily eat an old shoe if it was dressed with smoky cashew.) If you’re one of those folks who cringe upon hearing people wax poetic over chicharrones, chef Stupak will open your eyes to the beauty that is deep fried pork skin. Served warm with a roasted tomato and caper salsa, there is something deeply satisfying to the crackling sound which rises from the plate, like an overactive bowl of Rice Krispies. The texture is light and crunchy, yet alive with salty, porky good flavor. I challenge you to eat just one. (Unless of course, you’re like one of my dining companions and you’re in town from Rochester – in which case, you’re now wishing you could find a nice quiet Taco Bell and scarf down a gordita or two.) Eyes bigger than my stomach, a trio of appetizers arrive in quick succession: tuna with pickled potatoes and chorizo mayo, which should henceforth be packaged as a summer staple for city picnics, silky rounds of octopus with parsnip and salsa papanteca, a savory mix of pumpkin seeds and chipotle which on first glance looks overpowering but instead brings each flavor together quite marvelously, and a salad of sweet roasted beets with sikil pak, a creamy Mayan pumpkin seed dip that could easily be the new hummus, topped with a scatter of bitter sorrel leaves. In case you’re wondering, everything goes incredibly well with a neat pour of mezcal, too – notably the smoky Fidencio Madrecuixe. I’m physically unable to resist fish tacos whenever I see them on a menu, so forgive me, I didn’t get to sampling either the beer braised tongue or lamb barbacoa tacos – both of which sounded intriguing. But no worries because the tempura battered fish is that perfectly simple yet elusive combination of creamy flesh and crispy shell. Spiked with a dab of lime mayonnaise and the clean crunch of radish and cabbage, I can convincingly predict that I will order these fish tacos every time I visit – with a side of crispy yucca, please, my new favorite form of starch. As I wipe a dollop of smoky cashew off my shirt - excellent as a dipping sauce for the yucca – it occurs to me that therein lies the problem at Empellón: my utter lack of self-control. Every morsel of this meal has been not just good, but great –  in a full-but-can’t-stop-eating, bowl-licking, chip-scraping, my-palate-is-alive kind of way. I’m at capacity and yet I’m trying to convince my companions that we must have the churros rolled in cinnamon sugar with masa-enriched hot chocolate. Dining at Empellón could be a prim and proper experience if you choose to make it that way, but take it from one who’s stuffed and stained and still wants more: it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.


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