So Cosme is a new Mexican restaurant in an old strip club space. Are the margaritas and guac any good? We’ll get to that later, but this isn’t really that type of joint. See those men in jackets and women in dresses? They waited a month to get in. See that dining room? It’s as well-lit as a Gregory Crewdson print. See that copy of New Napa Cuisine on display? It was written by a fellow chef who charges $500 for tasting menus.
These are all signs that Cosme seeks to change the way we interpret (and how much we pay for) the diverse and luxurious foods from South of the Border. Dinner for two after tax and tip probably won’t cost less than $200, making Cosme one of USA's most expensive Mexican spots. But this Flatiron hangout isn’t more expensive than, say, Estela or any other ambitious small-plates establishment that doesn’t happen to be Mexican.
Oh, and here’s another talking point: Cosme is one of our finest and most relevant new restaurants. Here’s why.
Reason #1: It’s Run by One of the World’s Great Chefs
Enrique Olvera is the real deal. People fly into Mexico City just to eat at Pujol, the so-called "20th best restaurant in the world." That’s where the 38-year-old chef churns out tasting menus that climax in the mole madre, a "sauce course," derived from a 300-day old mix of roasted seeds and nuts. My friends who’ve tried it can’t shut up about it.
Here’s what I can’t shut up about: Cosme’s sepia spaghetti. We’ve seen this elsewhere, a tangle of bland cuttlefish posing as pasta. But here, the strands are raw and slick. Olvera adds a hint of smoke to amp up the mollusk’s natural sugars, and a bit of cilantro for perfume. The noodles slip and slide as you twirl your fork. Now inhale, and feel the ocean water and olive oil splattering against your lips.
Reason #2: Olvera is The Corn Whisperer
Is there any other New York chef that shows off maize in all its multifaceted glory than Olvera? Let’s start with the purple crisps that begin every meal; the dense tostadas taste like something out of a nuclear-powered movie theater, popcorn to the power of ten. Then a swiss chard tamal arrives, the masa acting as a sponge for the leafy green’s mind-bending, almost offaly flavors.
House made tortillas magically appear with every other course for impromptu taco making. The soft rounds hit you with a sweet, musky aroma, but they’re pliable, paper thin, and neutral on the palate, allowing any fillings to shine through strong and clear. They’re the appropriate medium for duck carnitas, slowly cooked to an earthy, almost livery funk. And just when you think you’re about to get sweet corn for dessert, Olvera brings out just the opposite, a corn mousse with a vegetal sting. Only a sugary husk meringue on top provides the sweet relief this brilliant dish needs. Call it a Mexican pavlova.
Reason #3: Cosme Is Riding a Recent Wave of Mexican Popularity
Even though Mexican doesn’t have the same deep history of high-end dining in the States as French, Japanese, or Italian fare, a small group of chefs have been working to change that over the years. Chefs like Zarela Martinez and Richard Sandoval started to pave the way in this regard in the nineties and aughts. And then there’s Rick Bayless in Chicago, whose $120 tasting menus at Topolobampo remain the pinnacle of haute-Mexican experience for some.
For others, Alex Stupak’s Empellon Cocina is the one pushing the genre forward with fried head cheese tacos and $48 pork carnitas. Just as pastas have long been a staple on menus in American restaurants, so too are tacos in 2014 New York.
This collective open-mindedness about Mexican that will allow Olvera to thrive.
It’s this collective open-mindedness about Mexican that will allow Olvera to thrive. And while I’m not sure any of this justifies Cosme’s $24 price tag on burrata (it costs $19 at Lincoln), it’s easy to forgive that upcharge for a dish that’s so damn good — a wallop of cream, salt, and salsa verde that you scoop into fresh corn tortillas.
Reason #4: Olvera is Eric Ripert in Disguise
You don’t necessarily compare Olvera to our city’s other Mexican chefs. You compare him to Eric Ripert. That’s less a compliment and more a statement of fact: Olvera’s cooking doesn’t so much evoke the sucker punches of salt, acid and spice you’ll find at a David Chang or Jean-Georges restaurant, as it does the zen-like subtleties of Ripert’s three Michelin-starred flagship Le Bernardin.
Oceanic al pastor isn’t a heavy-handed attempt at transforming fish into spiced pork; the preparation is rather an ode to the barely oily flavors of cobia, dotted with the toned-down essence of pasilla, guajillo, and pineapple. Hamachi, loaded with as much fat as bluefin tuna belly, is subject to a slightly more rigorous treatment, with fermented serranos and citrus (essentially a Latino yuzukosho) taming the luscious flesh. Even the delicate notes of roasted lobster come through amid a heady black bean and chorizo sauce, whose cinnamon overtones linger on the palate for minutes.
Reason #5: Cosme is Gorgeous and Not Too Loud
If for a moment, concrete floors feel too industrial for such cookery, look above. Overhead gallery lighting shines down on the tables, illuminating your scallops aquachile like a grecian urn at The Met. Food doesn’t even look this good at Per Se. And kudos to the owners for putting some serious yardage between tables instead of packing us in like sardines, a triumph of volume control over profit. That doesn’t necessarily make for a quiet dining room, just a properly tolerable one in which to enjoy a $17 uni, avocado, and bone marrow tostada, a trio of soft textures and musky flavors from the land, cow, and sea.
Reason #6: Fuck the Guacamole
So Olvera must make a mean guac, right? Well, the servers certainly wouldn’t like you to think so. Not a single member of the wait staff suggested the green dip during any of my visits. It’s relegated to such a far corner of the menu I didn’t even know if it was offered until about a week ago. I ask my editor if we should get a batch for the table. She shakes her head in apathy. So how are the margaritas and guac at Cosme? It’s a good question, which we can discuss over spicy tuna rolls at Masa if you’re paying. If not, I can think of a few better things to order at one of New York’s best Mexican restaurants.
Cost: A meal consists of about three shared plates per person ($12-$49), plus dessert ($9-$14).
Sample dishes: Uni tostada with bone marrow salsa, smoked raw sepia, cobia al pastor, husk meringue with corn mousse.
What to drink: House made cocktails ($14), sherry, wine, and mezcales. See above for specific recommendations.
Bonus tip: The full menu now served at the bar.