A Chef’s Mexican Fantasia at Empellón in Midtown

“Strawberries for the table” is a plate of seven one-bite sweets with different permutations of the fruit. One is a raw, red berry. Its leaves have been replaced by shiso, it’s been stuffed with yuzu jelly, and it’s electrifying. Another is a birch-flavored marshmallow dusted with powdered, dried strawberries. Eating all seven took me about four minutes (including pauses for such penetrating insights as “Wow!”) and completely restored my faith in the power of a good pastry chef to amplify and extend the themes that started with vegetables and meat.

Restaurant reviews don’t usually turn over so much space to desserts, but the ones at Empellón deserve it. They also illustrate how much Mr. Stupak has matured as both chef and restaurateur since he left a career in pastry to tackle Mexican food.

Before it closed recently, Empellón Cocina in the East Village was Mr. Stupak’s statement restaurant, and boy, did he have a statement to make. He had come out of the pastry kitchens of two of the country’s most determinedly avant-garde restaurants, Alinea and WD-50, and many of his dishes were self-consciously arty and tightly clenched. Even the action-painting bloops of salsa and mole radiated tension. I loved the flavors, but sometimes it seemed as if Mr. Stupak didn’t have the heart to tell his food that somebody was going to try to eat it.

Maybe it’s the competition from Cosme, which takes a much less formalist approach to high-end Mexican cooking. Maybe Mr. Stupak has more empathy for his customers now. Maybe setting up shop in a big, two-level space in Midtown in March triggered a dormant crowd-pleasing gene. Whatever the cause, the food he is cooking at Empellón wants to be liked.


The chef and owner Alex Stupak, far left, has matured as both chef and restaurateur since he left a career in pastry to tackle Mexican food.


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