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 an owner, interprets freely and with a big pinch of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Considered as a public statement, the $29 hot dog is obnoxious, a flagrantly expensive lowbrow-highbrow stunt out of the Jeff Koons catalog.
If you can forget all this and just eat it, though, the $29 hot dog is glorious. It gets to you both on a mindless, lizard-brain level and through a sophisticated appeal to your mind. It’s “Barbie” and it’s “Oppenheimer.”
There is, first of all, a condiment tray. Except for ketchup, which Mischa correctly believes has no place on a hot dog, it includes all of the standards. Yellow mustard and green-pickle relish are made at Mischa with obvious respect for the old ways, unless for you the old way means buying them in a jar. Kimchi stands in for sauerkraut. Finally there is a Chinese chili crisp with bacon and pimento cheese that has the consistency of Cheez Whiz.
The last two condiments have a strange affinity for each other. Spoon the mustard, relish and kimchi into the bun and you have a from-scratch version of a Nathan’s hot dog. Dress it with the chili crisp and pimento cheese and you have a new way of eating hot dogs.
Then there is the dog itself, about nine inches long and as fat as a kielbasa. People turn and stare each time one parades through the dining room, a large, comfortable and somewhat bland balcony suspended over a food court called the Hugh.
The natural casing snaps crisply, like a cap gun. The filling is emulsified brisket with pork fat. The flavor and juiciness are not far from those of steamed corned beef. The potato bun isn’t smushy, the great flaw of normal hot dog buns unless you are Joey Chestnut. It keeps its integrity whether you eat the hot dog with a fork and knife or with your hands.
I’m not convinced the $29 hot dog is a hot dog; it may be too smoky and garlic-drenched to qualify. Even if it’s just a sausage in a bun, though, it’s got to be the greatest sausage in a bun in the city.
“I think my job is to make things that no one else would make,” Mr. Stupak told an interviewer not long ago. Early in his career he joined a small, cerebral gang of cooks who regarded the tireless creativity of El Bulli and a few other cutting-edge restaurants as a personal challenge. He and his peers took nothing for granted. Invention was the prime directive, and they explored each thing they cooked until they arrived at a new idea of what it could be.
An early breakthrough of Mr. Stupak’s, when he was the pastry chef at Alinea, in Chicago, was a pliable ganache that held its shape when he twisted it into a sinuous, snaking curve. At Empellón, a few blocks away from Mischa, he molds avocado-lime mousse into a convincingly fake avocado half.
For most restaurants, inventing a new way of cooking dinner every night turned out to be, as a more recent generation would put it, unsustainable. Today, with Victoria Blamey
If you go to Mischa without knowing this, some of the food is probably going to weird you out. The “deviled egg floating island” is neither. It’s a meringue cylinder with a dome of creamed yolk on top and an unsweetened crème anglaise around the base. You don’t get the mustardy sharpness of a real deviled egg or the sweetness of a real floating island, but it’s fine 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 that a death-metal band would have in its backstage rider. Other than that, and the soft garlic twists for dipping, it is perfectly normal and delicious. The split-pea soup is rust-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. It may be my favorite thing at Mischa after the hot dog.
Tweaking a classic is not the Stupak way. Breaking and rebuilding is what he does. Nevertheless, at Mischa he gets a few excellent dishes by making some fairly minor twists. The kasha varnishkes is not just comforting, it’s engaging: 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 mining his Ukrainian heritage, challenging your notions of American cuisine, or both.)
For the lobster roll, buttered claw meat and tail meat dressed with mayonnaise are piled over sweet-and-sour celery in a top-split bun. The lobster roll gets its own, custom-built bread, as do all the sandwiches, a touch that makes them one of Mischa’s unqualified triumphs.
They’re all far more worked out than some of the main courses on the dinner menu, which can try to do too many things at once. The fried chicken would be better off on its own than with the buttery gravy that’s been made to taste like Puerto Rican sofrito, gratuitously. Spiced roasted pork belly probably needs a sauce more than it needs two dueling carrot salads.
If you stray too far from the hits, and start to look around the unnervingly large and featureless dining room, you may find that whatever idea you had formed of Mischa starts to dissolve before your eyes.
Until more clarity is brought to the main courses, it might be advisable to treat the appetizers as mezze — order a lot and share them around. Pastas, which perversely and charmingly have nothing to do with Italy, can follow, and perhaps a hot dog, although if you are missing Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, there’s a strong case for ordering the Roumanian skirt steak, moisturized with schmaltz, buoyant with garlic and tastefully accessorized with gribenes on top, a touch that Sammy’s had the restraint to resist.