Is Alex Stupak’s new $29 hot dog at Mischa worth it? The short answer is: Yes. When I tried the beef-and-pork weenie just recently, it measured eight-inches long and weighed an estimated half-pound. It refused to lie flat, glistening with fat in its snappy natural casing, crammed into a freshly baked potato bun of perfect fleecy texture and density. It’s giant.
To Stupak’s credit, the hot dog exudes a pungent hot dog taste. There are no extraneous flavors here, no duding up of the dog with funny ingredients or novel cooking methods. This frank has not been Cryovaced, nor is there a speck of ketchup in sight.
Rather, it’s accompanied by a cup of oily brisket chile, and an artist’s palette of sauces: bright brown mustard, carmine habanero-bacon crisps, green sweet-pickle relish, red kimchi, and buttercup-yellow pimento cheese. Whether you use these condiments is up to you; I tried them all, but ended up with just a schmear of mustard.
Mischa is Stupak’s month old restaurant at 157 East 53rd Street near Lexington Avenue. It appears to be part of the Hugh, the food court basement of Citicorp Center, but if you exit the E or 6 trains under the building and head for the food court, the restaurant is nowhere to be found, since it’s located up a pair of unmarked staircases at one end of the food hall.
In fact, the restaurant occupies a behemoth space that wraps around the food hall ceiling. If you part the curtains you can see it down below, the patrons scampering like mice. A bar runs along one wall of the L-shaped space, book-ended and flanked by tables, booths, and dining nooks. Around the corner is another long dining room, a bit darker, and there’s still another beyond that. The walls are decorated with whimsical and fantastical works of art, nothing like the creepy rats that adorn the East Village Empellon Al Pastor.
For my first visit, I resolved to concentrate on Jewish food riffs. Was this restaurant really an expensive deli under deep cover? The hot dog, of course, was the anchor of my theory.
But when my friend and I ordered drinks (she a greenish horseradish margarita sprouting a slice of cucumber, me a glass of Prosecco), the waiter slickly upsold us the black hummus ($19). Made from black chickpeas and black sesame seeds, it came with olive oil poured in the depression, looking like a beautiful but scary lake on another planet. Unfortunately, it tasted pretty much like a grittier version of the usual beige hummus, and was upstaged by the garlic rolls that docked beside it like spaceships waiting to take you to the rest of your meal.
The thick slab of duck mortadella ($24) was much better. Compounded with foie gras, it was lightly glazed with a date emulsion and scattered with more pistachios. It had been cut like a pie, and each wedge tasted like plain mortadella melded with the livery funkiness of seared foie gras. And it came with triangular crackers so good that they could have stood by themselves as an appetizer. One commendable feature of Mischa is the presence of house-made bread and crackers with many of the apps and entrees. Unlike many highbrow restaurants, Mischa refuses to be low carb.
The chopped lettuce salad ($19) was akin to what you might find in a deli, which came slicked with Russian dressing and draped with crisp potato shreds. If you have to eat iceberg, this is the way to go. Other deli standards on the appetizer list included deviled eggs and an onion dip furnished with crudite. There are only three pastas, but they all show Jewish and Eastern European origins. We picked the kasha varnishkes ($29), usually a pale toss of bow ties and buckwheat groats to be avoided unless your mother made them; here the pair of ingredients arrived in a buttery brown sauce bursting with flavor, the groats about to blossom like tiny flowers. But the price seemed excessive.
Finally, we arrived at the main course, just after the waiter out of earshot managed to sell my companion a $33 glass of chardonnay. The aforementioned hot dog was indeed splendid, but the Roumanian steak ($42) not quite as memorable. I’d picked it because Roumanian Jewish restaurants — quite different from delis — were common on the Lower East Side in the first half of the 20th century, and this cut of meat was the centerpiece of their menus. The soon-to-be revamped Sammy’s Roumanian was our last remaining example.
Now, the Roumanian steak is a skirt cut from the cow’s diaphragm, tasty in an organ-y sort of way, and this one was nicely done and sided with a mushroom hash topped with gribenes – crisp swatches of chicken skin and other byproducts of the schmaltz-making process. The entree is homey but not spectacular enough in my opinion for a restaurant intent on shooting off fireworks. Pick the hot dog instead.
Finally, there are the desserts. Already bursting at the seams, we tried only one: the buckwheat cake ($19), a very rich and round layer cake that looked like a sunflower on its surface, with a swatch of gold foil held skyward by a crunchy antenna. Reminding us that Stupak first gained notoriety as a pastry chef at Wd~50 20 years ago. And it’s been a long road from there to here.