New Yorkers have talked about the $29 hot dog at Mischa more than any other new dish this year. It may be better known than Mischa itself, which opened in Midtown in April with an American theme that Alex Stupak, the chef and owner, interprets freely and with a big pinch of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Considered a public statement, the $29 hot dog is an obnoxious, obviously expensive lowbrow-highbrow stunt from the Jeff Koons catalog.
If you can forget all that and just eat it, though, the $29 hot dog is glorious. It reaches you both on a no-nonsense, lizard-brain level and through a sophisticated appeal to your mind. It’s “Barbie” and it is “Oppenheimer”.
There is first of all a condiment tray. Except for ketchup, which Mischa rightly thinks has no place on a hot dog, it includes all the standards. Yellow mustard and green pickles are made at Mischa with an obvious respect for the old ways, unless for you the old way means buying them in a jar. Kimchi replaces sauerkraut. Finally there is Chinese chili with bacon and pimento cheese, which has the consistency of Cheez Whiz.
The last two spices have a strange affinity for each other. Spoon the mustard, relish and kimchi into the bun and you have a from-scratch version of Nathan’s hot dog. Dress it up with the chili and pimento cheese and you have a new way to eat hot dogs.
Then there’s the dog itself, about nine inches long and as thick as a kielbasa. People turn and stare every time you pass through the dining room, a large, comfortable and somewhat bland balcony suspended above a dining area called the Hugh.
The natural casing clicks crisply, like a cap gun. The filling is emulsified brisket with pork fat. The taste and juice are not far from those of steamed corned beef. The potato bun is not smushy, the big flaw of normal hot dog buns unless you’re Joey Chestnut. It maintains its integrity whether you eat the hot dog with a fork and knife or with your hands.
I’m not convinced about the $29 hot dog is hot dog; it may be too smoky and garlic-soaked to qualify. Even if it’s just a hot dog in a bun, though, it has to be the best hot dog in a bun in town.
“I think my job is to do things that no one else would do,” Mr. Stupak told an interviewer not long ago Early in his career he joined a small, cerebral band of chefs who viewed the tireless creativity of El Bulli and a number of other avant-garde restaurants as a personal challenge. He and his companions took nothing for granted. Invention was the prime directive, and they explored every thing they cooked until they arrived at a new idea of what it could be.
Mr. Stupak’s early breakthrough, when he was the pastry chef at Paragraphin Chicago, was flexible ganache that held its shape as he twisted it into a sinuous, serpentine curve. At Empellón, a few blocks away from Mischa, he molds avocado-lime mousse into convincingly fake avocado half.
For most restaurateurs, inventing a new way to cook dinner every night proved, as a more recent generation would say, unsustainable. Today, with Victoria Blamey between gigs and Wylie Dufresne making pizza, Mr. Stupak may be the last chef in New York who regularly tries to bend reality as if it were ganache.
If you go to Mischa without knowing this, some of the food will probably freak you out. The “devil egg floating island” is neither. It’s a meringue cylinder with a dome of custard on top and unsweetened custard around the base. You don’t get the mustardy sharpness of a real deviled egg or the sweetness of a real floating island, but that’s okay because the whole dish is really just an excuse to eat trout roe.
Black hummus, made with black chickpeas, black cumin seeds and black tahini, looks like something a death metal band would have in their backstage. Other than that, and the soft garlic twist to soak, it’s perfectly normal and delicious. The split pea soup is rusty brown and spicy (and also undercooked the day I had it).
The Cosmopolitan looks like a Cosmopolitan, but is mixed from completely different ingredients, starting with pomegranate juice. Might be my favorite thing on Mischa after the hot dog.
Handing over a classic is not Stupak’s way. Breaking down and rebuilding is what he does. However, at Mischa he gets some great dishes by making some pretty minor twists. The kasha varnishkes is not just comforting, it’s attractive: the buckwheat is fried, so it stays firm, and the flavor of the grain is underlined and italicized by meat stock. (When Mr. Stupak dips into Eastern Europe, it’s hard to tell whether he’s threatening his Ukrainian heritage, challenging your notions of American cuisine, or both.)
For the lobster roll, buttered claw meat and mayonnaise-dressed tail meat are piled atop sour and sweet celery in a split-top bun. The lobster roll gets its own, custom-built bun, as all sandwiches do, a touch that makes them one of Mischa’s unqualified triumphs.
They are all much more elaborate than some of the main dishes on the dinner menu, which can try to do too many things at once. The fried chicken would have been better on its own than with the butter sauce, which was made to taste like Puerto Rican sofrito, gratuitously. Spiced roasted pork belly probably needs sauce more than it needs two dueling carrot salads.
If you stray too far from the hits, and start looking around the disturbingly large and featureless dining room, you may find that whatever idea you formed about Mischa begins to dissolve before your eyes.
Until more clarity is brought to the main courses, it may be advisable to treat the appetizers as mezze – order a lot and share them around. Pastas that perversely and charmingly have nothing to do with Italy may follow, and perhaps a hot dog, although if you’re missing Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, there’s a strong case for ordering the Romanian skirt steak, drenched in schmaltz, buoyant with garlic and deliciously accessorized with gribenes on top , a touch which Sammy had the restraint to resist.