Near a tony corner of 53rd and Madison, a neighborhood where hedge fund occupants manage assets in excess of the the GDPs of small Caribbean countries, a chef sells fajitas for $125.
They’re fajitas fit for a guys’ night out in Vegas. A waiter presents six strips of Japanese A-5 Miyazaki wagyu, the Caspian caviar of the meat world. He grills the steak on a hot stone for thirty seconds, while I try to avoid inhaling all the steam as it blows toward my face. I eat the steak, as advised, by itself. And I make fajitas out of the peppers and onions sizzling in wagyu fat. I dip them in an inky mole with chiles that smolder on the palate. It’s all quite fantastic and absurd: The wagyu isn’t a refinement that depends on creativity or advanced technique so much as it’s about having the customer spend more money.
Chef Alex Stupak, at a restaurant called Empellon, has transformed an accessible $25 luxury into a dish tailor-made for the financial community. It’s the third and most ambitious restaurant in the growing Stupak empire and the first one above 14th Street.
Empellon also sells $30 crab and sea urchin nachos. They are not good nachos.
There is a single rule for eating at Empellon, Stupak’s first Midtown restaurant: You order dessert, preferably after you’ve had dinner elsewhere, ideally at a venue that doesn’t sell wagyu fajitas, because Stupak is putting out some of the city’s most disappointing Mexican fare at outrageous prices in a generic bi-level space that could double as a Dos Caminos if things don’t work out.
I hope things work out. For that to happen, Stupak will need to make his tacos taste good. He clearly knows how to do this: Spend $20 at Empellon Taqueria and you’ll encounter remarkably bitter yet balanced brussels sprouts tacos. Spend $5 at Empellon Al Pastor and a waiter will deliver one of the city’s better renditions of spit-roasted pork tacos with pineapple.
At the new Midtown location, the kitchen thinks it’s a good idea to drown an octopus tentacle in savory peanut butter with celery. I’ll politely describe the resulting texture and flavor as oceanic sludge. Rather than show off Oaxacan grasshoppers for their chipotle-like heat or popcorn-esque crunch, the chefs would prefer to make them a nearly inconsequential element in falafel tacos with hummus. Pastrami tacos use both sauerkraut and mustard seed to drown out any remaining flavor in gelatinous corned beef. They cost $22, about as much as the namesake sandwich as Katz’s and precisely one eighth as delicious.
And then there are the tortillas: Once upon a time, Stupak exclusively used a flour variety. They were impossibly thin and slightly underbaked, showing off his massively flavorful fillings. He then moved onto reasonably impressive corn tortillas, a changeover that served to keep fattier, saltier stuffings in check.
But at Empellon Midtown, his tortillas exhibit a level of deliciousness on par with low sodium crackers and a structural integrity so delicate the second or third tacos are almost guaranteed to disintegrate in your hand.
If you insist on a savory meal, the sticky rice duck tamales are sufficiently warming and soft. The short rib platter with warm raisins is, I suppose, an acceptably affordable substitute to the wagyu fajitas. And the corn with Cotija cheese, chanterelles, and fideo is a balanced riff on the street snack, if you want it as a $29 entree instead of on the cob.
While the idea of munching on sea urchin-topped chilaquiles with an ice cold beer somewhere on the Baja peninsula sounds nice, it's natural to feel suspicious about a New York chef using the addition of uni butter queso and crab to triple the street value of nachos to $30. That's not to say that fajitas or nachos are off-limits in as far as upscaling bar food. But when the expensive versions of a traditionally cheap dish are the only versions, and when those dishes are fueled by ubiquitous luxury ingredients, the menu is more exclusive and less welcoming, especially in these parts of Midtown.
Or perhaps more practically: The dish lacks the heavy, overweighted, sloppy, droopy, these-chips-are-stuck-together quality that make nachos so great. You're like, “Where's the rest of the crab?”
On the savory side, only the beets display creativity and execution of the desserts New York diners have come to expect from Stupak, former head of pastry at Alinea in Chicago. The soft roots are bland at first, until a wallop of cilantro ice and coconut crema whip lightens the dish.
After dinner, walk by the open kitchen and you’ll notice a corn aroma. Yet, the only dish inside with the flavor to match that complex perfume is the $6 ice cream corn taco. But I suppose that's a separate review!