New York has never been known for its Mexican food. In fact, Mexican food in New York is usually defined by an inferiority complex. We immediately defer to the West Coast as having far superior options, while we sheepishly point people in the direction of Dos Caminos and Rosa Mexicana.
But a lot has changed. Suddenly taco is becoming really trendy. We have all these places like Mission Cantina, Empellon and Taqueria Diana that are making decent tacos. And now we are home to Cosme, a high-end Mexican restaurant run by chef Enrique Olvera, who also runs Pujol, one of the top restaurants in the world. It’s shocking that something other than French, Italian or new fangled Asian is getting so much attention. There’s so much excitement that the restaurant is fully booked through 2015. Craziness. Good call on my part on booking a random table two months out on Open Table as soon as the reservations opened up.
Don’t expect a traditional Mexican menu at Cosme. You won’t see any direct references to chips and guac and the word taco makes a single appearance. Instead, you’ll see things like uni tostada or raw hamachi. Olvera has said that he didn’t come to New York to “cook like his grandmother”, and you wouldn’t find many of these items on her table. Mexican food tends to be very hearty and heavy on strong spices like garlic, cilantro and onion, but Olvera’s take is a much cleaner and more refined version. You’ll still see the traditional spices represented, and corn, whether in the form of a tortilla or a dessert, plays a pivotal role, but less familiar ingredients are utilized so that the end result is a bit more ambiguous in origin, like one of those striking Bennetton models you see in those interesting ads.
Each table gets a complimentary plate of warm, crispy tostadas with pumpkin seed butter. It’s an updated take on the chips and salsa combination that Westerners have come to expect from a Mexican restaurant. The tostadas were a bit plain on their own, but the accompanying pumpkin seed butter was packed with flavor. It tasted like a black sesame peanut butter hummus, and while it was very distinctive and original, it can never win over my heart like a bowl of good guac. I could’ve used several more tostadas than the two that they gave us, as my margarita was extremely strong. The drinks here are very potent, fyi.
The serving sizes here are small and very pricey, but the best value item by far is the duck carnitas. This dish is meant for two, but it could easily feed 4 people. The taut firmness you usually associate with duck breast gets totally broken down, and the end result is a cut of meat that is incredibly marbled and tender, the byproduct of having been braised in its own fat and oil. Even a small bite of this would be a sin, one worth committing, of course, and they give you about a thousand opportunities to do so, since the slab of meat is so large and thick. The accompanying tortillas are small, which helps you pace yourself, and the onions and salsa verde help to enhance the meat even further.
The duck carnitas was an anomaly in terms of portion size, the rest of the menu is definitely smaller and lighter. The cobia al pastor features a white fish cooked al pastor or kebab style, which is something you don’t come across everyday. The resulting flavors were surprisingly very clean and bright, and I felt like I was eating the fish in its pure form. The sweet pineapple puree was a nice complement to the cobia’s mildness, which assumed the acidity nicely.
The white ayocote bean salad was entirely different from my expectations. I was expecting an actual green salad with beans, but what arrived instead was a white bean puree that resembled a very smooth hummus, with radishes and green leaves arranged around it like a wreath. It was very oily and rich, although the vegetables helped to offset this somewhat. I guess I was confused initially as to how to best consume this. Usually when I see a white bean puree I want a piece of bread or some chips to dip into it, but this was not an option as it arrived without an arsenal of carbs. You basically had to eat the bean on its own with a few greens nestled in, which was unusual, but somehow it worked.
We ended the meal on an extreme high with the husk meringue and corn mousse, one of the best desserts I have ever had in a long time. The presentation was gorgeous–the meringue resembled a cracked egg yielding an overflowing bounty of sweet corn mousse. The mousse itself tasted like a panna cotta, although there were moments when it tasted sweet, and other times when it tasted much more salty and savory. It’s a dessert that gives you what you want, but it also keeps you on its toes with some unexpected changes, and the experience is a very rewarding one.
As I mentioned earlier, Cosme is fully booked for the next few months, but you could always try your hand at the bar, which also offers the full dining room menu. As much as I enjoyed the food here, I’m in no hurry to rush back. This is definitely a special occasion place, with special prices to match, although for good reason. Cosme is showing that Mexican food deserves a place in the realm of fine dining, and that it can be so much more than just tacos and enchiladas. And it’s nice to finally claim a really good one as one of our own–we can’t keep letting the West Coast and Rick Bayless have all the glory!
35 E. 21st St (between Park Ave and Broadway)
New York, NY 10010