Friday, August 3, 2012

Hot Mexican That Leaves You Cold

2015 Update: Bandolero has closed.
2019 Update: Empellón Cocina has closed (other Empellón restaurants remain open)

Recently, The New York Times ran a story about chefs who cook cuisine from a culture that isn't their own. It's a list that includes big names like Portland-based Andy Ricker (Pok Pok) and Top Chef first season winner Harold Dieterle (Kin Shop), both of whom are turning heads for their Thai cooking.

The article also featured Alex Stupak, the former pastry chef of notable modernist restaurants Alinea in Chicago and WD-50 in New York, who last year made a career shift to head chef of his first restaurant, Empellón Taqueria in the West Village. Its sister restaurant, Empellón Cocina, opened earlier this year.

The story could have also mentioned Mike Isabella, the two-time Top Chef contestant whose Graffiato was one of D.C.'s hottest openings last year. Like Stupak, Isabella is now also trying his hand at Mexican, having opened Bandolero in Georgetown earlier this year.

Both restaurants have their pluses, with Stupak showing particular creativity in Empellón Cocina's kitchen. However, I left both restaurants feeling like neither lived up to their (considerable) hype.

Bandolero's chicken taco with barbecue sauce
Bandolero's tacos were a definite highlight. The suckling pig taco is a house favorite, served with diced apple and habanero mustard. But equally good was the chicken taco with barbecue sauce, poblano pepper and fried plantain sticks.

The dishes that followed, however, were a mixed bag. The short ribs with mole negro sauce were excellent, but I found the alambres--steak skewers with chimichurri sauce--lacking flavor. Also a bit bland were the tuna tartare taquitos with ginger and sweet potato. I know that sounds potent, but the tuna was buried amongst the other flavors, and frankly I couldn't taste the ginger.

Other starters were better. The guacamole was good, although good guacamole is nothing special these days. At least they don't feel the need to prepare it tableside (I'm looking forward to the day that guacamole making returns to the kitchen, lest servers start grilling steaks tableside). I liked that in addition to the corn chips, Bandolero threw in some chicarrones, crisp pork skins.

The house margarita, El Bandolero, comes on tap with white tequila, lime and a touch of Grand Marnier. Also good is La Flaquita, a margarita made with reposado tequila and mezcal. Smoky mezcal makes an appearance in a number of cocktails actually, many of which sound quite interesting.

We enjoyed Bandolero, even if we weren't blown away by it like we were with Graffiato. In contrast, I found Empellón Cocina a disappointment.

Again, we began the evening with guacamole, and Empellón's was rather good, studded with pistachios and slices of spicy jalapeño. Along with it, we also ordered smoked cashew salsa, which was perhaps the single best thing we had that night. Graciously, Stupak shares his recipes, and our check arrived with the smoked cashew salsa recipe on a card, so I might try to make it sometime (he also shares recipes on his website and printed the ingredients to all his salsas on the dining room's back window looking into the kitchen). The dips were served with masa chips, Stupak's original creation that isn't really a tortilla chip but more like a dried corn wafer, with a thicker crispy texture. They were good, although greasier than I would have liked.

Cocktails were another highlight, and like Bandolero, Empellón's bar shows a keen interest in mezcal. The Darkest Corner of Oaxaca mixed smoky mezcal with fresh orange juice and the mildy spicy Pasilla Oaxaquena. For a more fiery drink, try the Rooster's Claw, with reposado tequila, mango puree and habañero chile. Chris ordered this, and it was so hot we had to switch. We also had the house margaritas, which were good.

The dinner proper was where things went downhill. First off, I'd read that Empellón served small plates, so I was a little surprised when I saw that the menu's dishes were priced $15-$30. But the server confirmed that they were in fact small plates, raising my expectations that the food better be good.

Empellón's tomato with crispy pig ear and mustard
While there was much creativity in the dishes, there was little that found particularly satisfying. I liked that our salad came with raw summer squash shavings, a beautiful presentation, but the squash blossom buttermilk didn't add much flavor, and the dish would have benefited from something else, such as a more acidity or some pepitas for crunch. I was also underwhelmed by the heirloom tomato with crispy pigs ear and achiote mustard. The tomato wasn't particularly flavorful, or if it was, I couldn't tell, since it was so overwhelmed by the spicy mustard. The whole package is needlessly wrapped in a plain flour tortilla.

We also had the lamb barbacoa, which wasn't particularly memorable. I did enjoy the chanterelle mushrooms with tamal colado, another interesting masa creation.

Despite our disappointment with dinner, dessert was nice. Pastry chef Lauren Resler, Stupak's wife, serves up a delicious chocolate cake with mole dulce and masa ice cream. The cake was particularly good. I'm a big mole fan, and the sauce's traditional spiciness was a welcome enhancement to the dark chocolate cake.

Between the two restaurants, I would recommend Bandolero over Empellón Cocina, however, for better overall value and satisfaction, I would probably rather head to a restaurant serving more traditional Mexican fare (recent meals at El Centro D.F. and Agave, for example, were both more satisfying).

Bandolero. 3241 M Street NW (just west of Wisconsin Avenue), Washington, D.C. (Georgetown). (202) 625-4488. Reservations: City Eats.

Empellón Cocina. 105 First Avenue (between 6th and 7th Streets), New York City (East Village). (212) 780-0999. Reservations: Open Table.

Bandolero on Urbanspoon Empellon Cocina on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I agree with you: Neither restaurant wowed me. I was particularly disappointed with Bandolero since my expectations were so high.