Tortilleria Nixtamal at Threes Brewing

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Threes Brewing in Gowanus looks like a scene out of the TV show Girls. It’s in Brooklyn with a clientele of free-spirited Millennials who are very comfortable with themselves and their odd clothing choices of crop tops and high-waisted jeans. You’ll find them milling about in the large outdoor patio, which is perfect for the summertime, drinking pints of house-brewed lager and pale ale while talking about how they are so undateable.Read More

Cafe Dining at El Rey Coffee Bar

It’s been a crazy winter in New York. We’re already into March, yet the snow continues to fall and the temperatures continue to drop. I’m so over the slush and snow, and I can feel the mutual pent up frustration of others around me.

el rey - signage

Which is why I love hanging out at El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette, because for a moment I can trade in the weather-induced anxiety for some laid-back California calm. Everyone here is very friendly, which is impressive, as the tiny cafe usually gets packed, but instead of losing their cool, the staff cheerfully tells you that things will be ok. If space permits, you can find seats in the very back by the small but functional kitchen, where you can watch Chef Gerardo Gonzalez create his wholesome, vegetable-driven small plates. Not surprisingly, he’s also a very nice guy who’s happy to tell you what’s in his green mole sauce (answer: everything under the sun that’s green) or to give you wine pairing recommendations (the sparkly Macabeo white was a good call).

el rey - kale salad with shaved almonds and pickled eggs
kale salad with shaved almonds, almond vinaigrette, lemon zest and pickled eggs
el rey - frittata one
“lost bread” egg frittata with shaved fennel salad and crushed avocado

What brings me back to El Rey repeatedly is the kale salad. With so much kale all over the place, I’m sure the trend for this superfood is probably on the outs, but El Rey’s version is a classic that should persevere when the fad fades. Almond is the key ingredient here that helps to differentiate the kale salad. Many places rely on heavy shavings of parmesan cheese to add depth to kale, but El Rey uses almond shavings instead. It’s an ingenious way of adding some weight to your leafy greens in a more healthful way. The vinaigrette dressing is a great blend of tangy, sour and sweet, adding a nice spring to your salad step. In the am you have the option of adding pickled or poached eggs–I would highly recommend the pickled eggs, if only for their bright pink color.

sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread
sesame banana bread and sweet potato bread

Any coffee bar worth its weight should have a selection of tantalizing baked goods, and El Rey doesn’t disappoint. I tried slices of the sesame banana and the sweet potato bread, both very good, but the sweet potato was divine. It was extremely moist with the right amount of sweet, and with the candied nuts on top, you almost felt like you were eating a slice of pecan pie.

With such a great breakfast and lunch menu, I returned to try out the dinner service, which was introduced just a few weeks ago. The coffee bar is less packed in the evening, as I’m sure not that many people know about the full dinner menu, and also most would prefer a guaranteed seat rather than risking the wait for one of the very few bar stools (I would guess there are roughly 15 spots).

papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions
papas bravas in pickled pineapple hot sauce and scallions

With dinner, El Rey assumes more of a Baja California vibe. While Latin music plays in the background, Gonzalez starts cranking out funky tapas with flavors that are a little more spirited and in-your-face, and the heat factor really gets turned up. As an example, the sweet and sour papas bravas at first seemed deceptively mild, and the potatoes appeared to be coated in a harmless ketchup-like BBQ sauce. But then gradually the heat built, and I was taken by surprise by the tingling, fiery sensations coating my mouth.

marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic
marinated chorizo with orange zest, hazelnut and roasted garlic

Similarly, the chorizo was heavily spiced, absent the burning heat. I’m not totally sure what was in the marinade, but I could taste something like cumin and vinegar packed into every part of the chorizo sausage. If you ate the meat by itself, it would have been like eating a slice of pepperoni, which would be intense. Luckily the sweet roasted garlic cloves and the hazelnuts provided balance, as did the focaccia bread, although you could never quite shake off the presence of the marinade.

sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas
sardines with carrot top dressing, piquillo peppers, radishes, butter and tostadas

I preferred when the flavors were scaled back a little bit, more in tune with the tone set at breakfast and lunch. The sardines on tostada were fantastic–it featured such great textures and a good balance of flavors that were overall refreshing, never veering into salty, fishy territory as sardines tend to do, and not falling back on tons of rich aioli or a heavy poblano to cover things up.

green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za'atar bread
green mole with burrata, burnt onions and za’atar bread

The green mole burrata similarly impressed me with a complexity that still felt bright and clear. You could taste so many of the different herbs that had gone into the mole sauce, yet the multitude of ingredients served to enhance the mild burrata rather than overwhelming it.

shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
shaved cauliflower with chickpea vinaigrette, white sesame and poached egg
the breaking of the egg yolk
the breaking of the egg yolk

The shaved cauliflower was probably the lightest and most wholesome small plate of the night, but that didn’t mean it was boring. The thin slices of raw cauliflower were coated in a bright vinaigrette, which again exhibited the distinctive qualities of sweet, sour and tangy. Cauliflower’s cruciferous qualities naturally provided the dish with a lot of fibrous bulk, but the poached egg softened the edges so that things didn’t feel too raw and crudite-like, and it felt like a proper appetizer.

After dinner is over, I would suggest that you take a short walk to Morgenstern’s, an ice cream shop  whose owner is a partner at El Rey Coffee Bar. Even though it’s freezing out, the ice cream here is so good that it’s worth the trip. The raw milk in particular is outstanding–I’ve never had a vanilla flavor feel so creamy, rich and genuinely pure. They also offer ice cream breakfasts, which is an intriguing thought, and whether you take them up on it or not, a meal at El Rey or Morgenstern’s is always worth the gamble.


El Rey Coffee Bar & Luncheonette
100 Stanton St (between Orchard and Ludlow St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 260-3950

Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream
2 Rivington St (between Bowery and Chrystie St)
New York, NY 10002
(212) 209-7684

Cosmopolitan Mexican at Cosme

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.

tostada with pumpkin seed butter
tostada with pumpkin seed butter
the smoky el ninja cocktail and the strong, traditional margarita
the smoky el ninja cocktail and the margarita

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.

duck carnitas with white onions, radish and salsa verde
duck carnitas with white onions, radish and salsa verde
duck carnitas up close
duck carnitas up close

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.

cobia al pastor with pineapple sauce and cilantro
cobia al pastor with pineapple sauce and cilantro

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.

white ayocote bean salad with radish and charred cucumber vinaigrette
white ayocote bean salad with radish and charred cucumber vinaigrette

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.

husk meringue and corn mousse
husk meringue and corn mousse

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!


Cosme
35 E. 21st St (between Park Ave and Broadway)
New York, NY 10010
(212) 913-9659

Cosme