Eater critic Robert Sietsema steps into the new East Village Mexican restaurant for a first look.
Of the three successive incarnations of the sprawling restaurant space at 29 East 2nd Street in the East Village, the current one seems the most likely to succeed, even just based on the build-out. Facing 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street, two sides of Rosie’s are open to cooling breezes, cream lightshades shaped like inverted cups hang in strings from the ceiling, the bar glows at the end of the room like a beach palapa in Acapulco, and even when the sun is beaming down the interior is cool and dark, a perfect summertime retreat.
First it was Heartbreak, a Swiss restaurant that closed two days before receiving its first Michelin star. Painted red on gray concrete, the interior felt like a European bus station. Next, Boukies moved in, a pretty good Greek spot that based its menu on the recipes of Diane Kochilas, a preeminent cookbook writer. It worked, but the restaurant only lasted two years, posing the question: Does a cookbook author have the same firepower as a celebrity chef?
Does a cookbook author have the same firepower as a celebrity chef?
And now that same question is being asked again. Marc Meyer and Vicki Freeman have come up with Rosie’s, a Mexican restaurant that swims upstream against the Tex-Mex current by offering fundamental regional Mexican fare based largely upon the recipes of Mexican cookbook doyenne Diana Kennedy, the author of My Mexico (1998), among other south-of-the-border volumes.
Are prize-winning cookbooks a successful way to hatch a restaurant? Only time will tell if this location is cursed, or if the space was simply waiting for a formula that would click. Two early meals there have been promising. A Campeche-style coctel de mariscos ($14) — served in a tulip glass with saltine crackers — was right on the money, just like something you might find at a sleepy seaside resort in Playa del Carmen on the Gulf of Mexico. Plump shrimp did the backstroke as squid, mussels, and arcs of avocado looked on, immersed in a tomato sauce that might have been bloody mary mix without the alcohol.
So, too, were the enchiladas suizas ($17), fantastic. Stuffed with chicken, the pair came swamped in jack cheese and a tomatillo-laced salsa verde. As Rick Bayless says of this distinctly modern (as opposed to pre-Columbian) recipe: "They’re rolled up and sauced in cafeterias (especially the new, bright chain restaurants) everywhere — and with above-average fervor in the heartlands of Central and West-Central Mexico." So nice to have common recipes of everyday Mexico, and not ones that strive for an academic obscurity.
The guacamole ($10) is perfection itself, blessedly available in only one version. It contains avocado, onions, cilantro, lime, and salt, served with chips still glistening from the fat. Other great small dishes include pleasantly misshapen fritters made of dried shrimp called botanas de camaron seco ($9), tendered with a stout green salsa; and tacos made with a single homemade corn tortilla more like the ones seen in California than the fine-textured ones made in Bushwick tortilla factories. Of the four tacos available (two for $8), my friend and I picked the tongue, and found it every bit as tasty as anything found in a bodega taqueria.
In the middle of the dining room is a fenced-off area faced with colorful tiles, where three women stand forming tortillas and antojitos all evening, making Rosie’s a sort of dinner theater. (I hope they’re getting paid extra for being defacto performers.) Pat, pat, pat go their practiced hands as they form tlaycoyos, quesadillas, and memelitas ($6 for two) — rounds of masa stuffed with refried black beans upon which onions, salsa, crema, and sauteed chiles are heaped. There are a half-dozen of these dreamy concoctions available, tasting strongly of corn swaying in the sun-baked fields. But there is one problem: these antojitos are comically small, sometimes measuring only an inch or two. The one-bite size makes the restaurant seem ungenerous, and makes the diners feel like giants.
In fact, I was at first delighted to see a tlayuda on the menu, the Oaxacan answer to pizza, comprising a giant masa disk with sausage, chiles, and a half-dozen other ingredients piled on. Here the thing has shrunken to small-tortilla size and comes dressed mainly with shredded cabbage, which is really a shame. Sometimes the entrees fall short, too. A stew of pork ribs called guiso de puerco ($22) was loaded with random ingredients like pineapple and almonds, but ended up without any focused flavor. The chicken mole poblano had a monovalent version of the famous sauce, though the fancy roast chicken underneath was just fine.
Predictably, the menu pushes shots of tequila and mezcal, of which there are dozens of varieties. There are cocktails also, made with booze and beer; American craft beers on tap, in bottles, and in cans; and wines by the bottle and glass, though none of them from Mexico, alas. Wash the food down with beer, and save room for dessert, especially the churros served with a cup of Oaxacan hot cocoa. There’s no way to guarantee that Rosie’s will succeed in this difficult location, but so far the augurs are good — and so’s the food.