Early Review: Empingao Might Be Too Much for PoblacionJuly 22, 2016
Kel Zaguirre understands flavor. That is evident in his extremely popular, well-received restaurant Locavore, which has recently opened another branch with new dishes that seem to be the object of everyone’s Instagram affection. Fat too, was an exercise in subtle hedonism, the only apt way to describe their oxymoronic, beautifully composed fatty dishes. This year it seemed as if there was no stopping the young chef, with the number of outlets under his guidance increasing exponentially.
It is a shame then, that Empingao, with all its potential, fails to deliver at the same caliber Zaguirre’s other restaurants do. It has the basic building blocks to turn into a hit, but there are many missteps that unfortunately undermine the better qualities. Several dishes for example, pack bright punches that are consistent with the chef’s style. A mofongo is far from traditional or authentic, but manages to be intensely flavorful; there are also generous chunks of crispy pork belly that add more necessary texture to mashed beans and fried plantains. Pollo a la brasa has a great spice and rub on the skin which makes it very savory, and a pleasure to eat. But this dish needs editing, with a rambunctious trio of sauces all competing for the spotlight, and a side of creamed corn whose sweetness overpowers the chicken rather than complementing it.
This is the beginning of one of Empingao’s problems: editing. While Zaguirre loves intensity and makes it work so well so often, here the palate is often assaulted with too much instead of introducing balance. His mojo sauce, which appears on almost every plate in Empingao, has so much bitterness and heat that taste disappears when it is introduced to meat. Bunches of chopped parsley cloud composed dishes adding nothing to where it was introduced.
Another problem Empingao has is portion size in relation to price, and in a neighborhood where you’re competing with no-frills restaurant that are all about great value for money, some of the restaurant’s offerings just seem a little exorbitant. Five pieces of small-sized overcooked mussels overpowered by a confusing combination of pico de gallo, corn, mojo, and white truffle oil for P380 are an odd menu choice for a Poblacion establishment, offering little gastronomic relief. Churrascos are sold by the piece, and seem a little too expensive. A tiny rod of onglet comes in at P480, obscured by the toppings it comes with.
This doesn’t mean there is no hope for Empingao; Zaguirre has some winning combinations and the ideal location. The colorful space however, seems to have tried to replicate the formula for the kind of place people come to Poblacion for, but has simply fallen a little too short. Does it want to be a serious restaurant, a watering hole for friends after work, or an approachable place with just-as-approachable food? Come back in a few months; maybe then Empingao will have figured out its identity.