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(All of my photos in order are here: http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2015/02/...)
Eater called it “One of NYC’s Most Relevant New Restaurants“. The New York Times gave it three stars the very day I went. Chef Enrique Olvera has what’s considered Mexico’s best restaurant and just guest-judged an episode of “Top Chef: Boston” filmed there. This chef is hot, and you know he knows it the moment you walk in the doors of Cosme to find a bar crowded with people not there to eat but just to be. The decor is mostly black, punctuated by little pots of succulents and a direct beam of light on every table strong enough to make professional photographers and hardcore Instagrammers alike swoon. The tables are spaced so widely that you get the idea the restaurant’s more concerned about your comfort than making an extra buck–although maybe that’s why they do charge an extra buck (or ten) for everything–and I can’t remember ever hearing the conversations of anyone around us even though the electronic-tinged soundtrack wasn’t overbearing at all. It’s borderline clubby, the kind of restaurant a non-New-Yorker thinks all New York restaurants are like, but it never felt pretentious nor snooty. And the food? Well, it was tiny and very expensive, but that sure didn’t stop us from eating a lot of it.
Most things we tried sort of tasted the same in that they were like, “Here’s something with onions and cilantro and avocado! And here’s a different thing with more onions and cilantro and avocado! And now here’s a different thing with more onions and cilantro and avocado and did we also mention onions and cilantro?” But those are the flavors I most associate with Mexico, for one, and for two, who cares when the food is so good? The first thing I tried was the mussel tostada, and I don’t care a lick about mussels in my regular, non-Enrique-Olvera life, but these were plump and tender atop a tortilla crisp and coated in that creamy chipotle mayo given even more of a kick by the sliced peppers. The hamachi, so humbly presented, was actually deep layers of sour and umami with fish sauce, bold black lime, and fermented chilis. Acids were everywhere, lemons and grapefruits and tomatoes and pineapples. One of the stunners of the night was the cobia al pastor, served with a gloopy pineapple puree that I had a notion to scoop right out of the bowl with my finger, and fresh warm tortillas for making tacos. A review I read said that the tortillas were almost flavorless to provide a blank canvas for the proteins, but my group entirely disagreed and thought that the things the chef was doing with corn were his best things.
Unfortunately, we had to fight for those tortillas. Even though we were a table of six and were ordering all but four dishes off the entire dinner and dessert menus combined, our cobia came with two tortillas. Our plate of hamachi came with five pieces. The one dessert we didn’t order never showed up at the table for us to try with a wink from the chef like it would have in the NYC restaurants with the best front of house service. I’m not really complaining about the service–our server came back to talk with me about our bottle of Riesling from the Finger Lakes that I was really enjoying–but it seems like some communication must have been lost between the server and the chef along the way. Or maybe the chef really couldn’t spare one more piece of hamachi for us.
But back to the food. While most dishes did have similar intense, punchy flavors, there were two that tasted like nothing else on the menu: the burrata and the enfrijoladas. The burrata was so light, with herbs that tasted so green and fresh it was like the cheese and all had just been dug up from the garden. The enfrijoladas, which were kind of like enchiladas but with a bean sauce that reminded me of a mole in color and texture, had this hoja santa herb in it that imparted an anise flavor I didn’t find on the other plates. I would order both of these again for sure, along with: the sepia, where thick strands of the cuttlefish acted like noodles; the octopus cocktail, where someone who loves pickled red onions as much as I do was in heaven; the eggplant tamal with its wildly acidic topping; the posole, where rich ingredients met bright broth to make for one of the most complete dishes; the cobia, the hamachi, and of course that mussels tostada.
Up for debate is the duck carnitas, which was a hefty $58 for the amount of meat you’d find in a measly four tacos but had the most beautifully rendered fatty skin over succulent dark meat. We had to add the really, really excellent hot sauce from the chicharron and some salt flakes to the duck to make it perfect, and you can obviously get great duck for a tenth of the price all over the city, but if you’re already at Cosme and spending $19 on half of a stuffed avocado, just get the duck.
Not up for debate are the desserts, which ranged from very good to I’m-never-going-to-stop-thinking-about-this. Pastry chef Jesus Perea has worked everywhere from Chef Olvera’s acclaimed restaurant in Mexico, Pujol, to Del Posto under Brooks Headley to Le Bernardin to too many of the very best restaurants in NYC to name. The brioche smothered in ricotta was almost savory at first bite and didn’t seem very special, but then suddenly the smear of fresh peanut butter took over and made it this incredibly craveable thing. The sweet potatoes in the flan gave it natural sweetness, and coffee syrup somehow didn’t overpower the potato flavor, making this a great choice for someone who likes a simple, not-sugary dessert. The lemon cake was this entire bowl of citrusy brightness, all kinds of lip-puckering in different textures. The cinnamon cake was spicy to the point that it overpowered the cream cheese ice cream, which really needed to be eaten alone to appreciate it, and appreciate it I did. The tender carrot was nixtamalized, which is apparently the same process used to make corn into hominy. (That is, it makes it softer and more delicious.) Despite the interesting preparation, though, it didn’t have enough “pop” for some of our group, which we attributed to a lack of acid in the bowl. The chocolate ganache was a table favorite, on the other hand, with its perfect sphere of beet sorbet that made it look like a delicious spaceship. The mezcal lent the chocolate this almost funky flavor, like it had gone a little sour, but we somehow wanted to keep eating it; I’m guessing it’s the kind of dessert that you either absolutely love like we did or think is semi-disgusting. (And borderline disgusting is some of the most exciting food, right?) The star of the night, though, was this beautiful cracked husk meringue with corn mousse seeping from it. All of the reviews will tell you that this is the dessert to get, and they are correct. This will probably become the dish Cosme’s known for with its naturally sweet corn whip and meringue that immediately sticks in your teeth like wet cotton candy and then melts away just as quickly. I’ll never forget you, husk meringue, no matter how fleeting you were.
So is this the most relevant food in NYC right now? Well, in a way. It cemented my love of Mexican food and reminded me that the best flavors are often the simplest: a well-placed fresh herb or a slice of pickled red onion can so easily bring a dish to new levels. And the great news is that those things can be found all over the city in hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints where a taco costs two dollars instead of twenty. (Two of my favorites right now are Tacos El Bronco in Sunset Park, introduced to me by my friend Kim, and The Original California Tacqueria, introduced to the same friend and me one Friday night when we were drunk and wandering Cobble Hill.) But you’re probably not going to get chipotle mussels there, nor noodles of smoked sepia, nor that corn meringue. Cosme is the Mexican flavors you love in ways you never imagined.