It’s been over six years since Alex Stupak opened a restaurant: the Midtown version of Empellón, an 8,000 square-foot Madison Avenue place that’s big enough to house his three earlier locations — Empellón Taqueria in the West Village, Empellón Cocina in the East Village, and the more laid-back Empellón Al Pastor — combined. While his newest spot isn’t a Mexican maximalist destination, Mischa, an “American restaurant” that opened last night (157 E.53rd Street, near Third Avenue), promises to be anything but boring.
Named for what Stupak’s parents would have called him if not Alex, Mischa was conceived before the pandemic as a receptacle of sorts. “A place to put all of our ideas,” he says, referring to a team that’s been with him for about a decade. The ideas were mothballed for two and a half years with the onset of the pandemic.
The 150-seat restaurant has a disarmingly neutral dining room for a Stupak restaurant — not the hyper-saturated, magical-realism-inspired decor of Empellón. It features a straightforward menu of familiar dishes paired with less obvious details: Hummus wed to garlic twists; gai lan (Chinese broccoli) for a Caesar salad; salt pork with pierogies; and fried chicken with adobo.
He’s following in the footsteps of many Midtown American restaurants that pair disparate references without diners noticing. He cites the diner-influenced turkey club wrap at his go-to, Donohue’s Steak House on the Upper East Side. Or the vast selection of sushi, sashimi, and tempura on the menu at Nobu, a combination less often seen outside of the States. “If there were a cheeseburger on the menu, it would also sell,” he says. As Americans, “We want what we want when we want it, even if it doesn’t go together.”
Case in point: Stupak mentions his fascination with Georgian flavors in the run-up to Mischa’s opening. “You know how people say sauce in a steakhouse is BS? What if that sauce really matters?” he says. His prime rib is a 20-ounce dry-aged cut with dilled potatoes and a side of red-pepper adjika, “If you use it, you are making a decision,” he says, “and that decision is going to take you to Georgia.”
As a former pastry chef, no Stupak restaurant is complete without desserts. “It is still my favorite food to think about,” he says. Back when he opened Empellón in Midtown he still had a hand in desserts, which is how the restaurant ended up with its “very modernist” trompe l’oeil avocado that tastes like key lime. “We cannot do anything like the fucking avocado ever again,” he says, before comparing it to Sir Mix-a-Lot, who “failed when he tried to do a sequel to ‘Baby’s Got Back.’”
Justin Binnie oversees desserts, the baker who’s been with Stupak for nearly a decade, who was at Bien Cuit before that. Stupak says Binnie draws inspiration for Mischa’s desserts from viennoiserie and Persian pastries. He cites the apple pie, listed on the menu as sticky bun pie: The bottom is a streusel crust, with confit apples for filling, and a collection of micro sticky buns for the top crust, with fennel, turmeric, and cardamom in the mix.
Opening Mischa has been very different from opening Empellón Midtown in that Stupak is in a different life stage with earlier Empellón locations downtown.
“For 13 years, no one would back me,” he says of wanting to open a Mexican restaurant despite his track record as a pastry chef at fine dining temples like Alinea in Chicago and wd~50 in New York. This time, as a father of two children, “I feel more vulnerable,” he says. Yet his approach, in some ways, remains the same: to find success by doing the least expected thing.