A few weeks ago I noticed that Cosme, one of the city’s best Mexican restaurants, was serving beef tartare, a typically French dish that chefs around the city have been internationalizing in unexpected ways. Estela, for example, laces its version with fish sauce and sunchoke chips for a sweet, salty, crunch. Augustine employs a dose of yuzu kosho for its own riff, imparting a fragrant kick of citrus and chile. And Chinese Tuxedo aromatizes its raw steak with kaffir lime and Sichuan peppercorns. All are innovative, excellent, and affordable, with prices ranging from $6 to $18.
Cosme’s tartare is no less ambitious. The kitchen lays cool strip loin over chile-spiked smoked bean puree, and then showers the beef with shavings of cured egg yolk. A waiter tells me the ingredients are meant to, “mimic the flavors of char while keeping everything raw.” As a hat tip to Korean barbecue, it’s paired with a pile of manicured lettuce for wraps.
Just one difference: Cosme charges a lot more than its peers. Listed as an appetizer, the tartare costs $29. That’s more expensive than some of the city’s best burgers.
When Enrique Olvera opened Cosme, his first stateside restaurant in 2014, the critics were near-unanimous in their praise. I awarded three stars in my review, calling the chef a veritable “corn whisperer” who pushed New Yorkers to think more open-mindedly about how much they’d pay for Mexican fare.
A little over two years later, I’m happy to report that Cosme, led by chef Daniela Soto-Innes, continues to serve some of the city’s most thrilling Mexican fare. This is true even as Soto-Innes readies Atla, the group’s long awaited casual spot. But the prices Cosme charges, while always high, have become somewhat startling in their upward trajectory.
Dos Equis — $7 on the opening menu — now costs $13; it’s the venue’s cheapest draft beer.
Prices are a big reason I’ve been visiting Cosme lately during brunch. I don’t typically brunch — too much nonsense — but here it’s the easiest time for walk-ins. It’s also when you end up spending a heck of a lot less.
But it’s not all about dollars and cents: Brunch is the only service that offers what might be the restaurant’s best and most overlooked dish: a family-sized lamb barbacoa for DIY-tacos.
That lamb, which has largely escaped the limelight, costs $69. Pair that with a basket of housemade pastries — conchas, elephant ears, pain au chocolats — a few glasses of coarse cashew horchata, a lot of coffee, and there’s your three-star brunch date.
If that still seems pretty expensive, consider the following: The duck carnitas, the restaurant’s most famous dish, was $48 after opening, and it’s now $89. It has almost doubled in price.
So brunch it is, which is a heck of a thing. Could you imagine a high-end sushi spot like, say, Ichimura, opening up on Saturday afternoons for more casual fare? Just imagine the think pieces that the culinary cognoscenti would write if Le Bernardin or Jean-Georges or Eleven Madison Park started slinging pastry bloody marys or pastry baskets on the weekends. And yet almost no one seems to think twice when one of the city’s finest and priciest Mexican spots decides to become a touch more accessible and open for a service that food snobs love to malign (You can’t buy “f*ck dinner” t-shirts last I checked.).
Just four of the 16 items at brunch rise above $20. These offerings are largely distinct from those on the dinner menu. That means no cobia al pastor — Cosme’s famous achiote-rubbed fish with pineapple puree — and no broccoli tamal with goat ricotta.
But you can still get the majestic uni tostada with bone marrow. And the enfrijolada — the elegant bean terrine that was a star of the dinner menu — is now exclusively offered on Saturdays and Sundays. The kitchen surgically snips hoja santa, an anise-flavored herb, into a giant circle, mimicking the shape of the tortilla that it’s served on. This is surrounded by a moat of mole-like bean sauce that delivers notes of sweet-bitter heat for a solid 30 seconds after each bite. The ingredients are humble, but the flavors, regal.
Other dishes are the exclusive domain of brunch: the $8 mushroom quesadillas, and a $13 chorizo and egg sope. For the latter dish, the kitchen deploys paprika-laced pork and runny yolk to highlight, not distract from, the main event: A fried disc of masa that tastes like sun-baked corn. The sope is very, very good.
But really, you’re here for the $69 lamb.
Soto-Innes, who tells me the dish was inspired by the barbacoa she used to eat after church on Sundays while growing up, braises the d’Artagnan leg of lamb overnight with garlic, tomatoes, “a lot of chile,” guajillo salsa, avocado leaves, allspice, and salt.
She then pulls the meat from the bones, plates it in a cast-iron pot, covers it with a canopy of cilantro, shishisto peppers, and pairs it with three different salsas (red, green, and hell), a side of sliced onions so thin they’re translucent, halved Key limes, an avocado cut so masterfully it could pass as a green deck of cards, two or three habaneros, and a stack of piping-hot, white corn tortillas.
Try the lamb on its own at first. Appreciate its grassy, adobo hut funk. Then take a morsel and stuff it into a taco with whole shishitos, some onion, and then dunk it into the braising liquid at the bottom of the crock. The fats and salts of the jus tame the shishito’s gentle bitterness, while the pale tortilla almost fades into nothing like a floury burrito wrapper — until you’re hit with a sucker punch of sweet corn.
Or stuff another tortilla with a bit more lamb, break open a habanero, and swipe it a few times against the meat to impart the flesh with a little heat and the pepper’s signature fruity, floral perfume.
Take a bite of the avocado to quell the fire. Or heck, just mash it onto the tortilla, add a little salt, and salsa, there’s your avocado toast. This is brunch in New York, after all.
I’m not typically inclined to pit one dish against another in the style of a tournament bracket and declare one or the other a winner, but since many readers will find dinner more convenient than brunch (it happens every night!), it’s worth devoting a few words to Cosme’s evening offerings, particularly the $89 carnitas.
When I sampled the duck on a recent Friday, it came topped with bland watermelon radishes and onions, with a few Key limes and salsas on the side; it made me long for the elegant side of accoutrements that accompanied the lamb. I also yearned for the concentrated braising liquids I mopped up with brunch dish; only fat slicked the duck’s crock pot. And I sighed when I saw the exterior wasn’t as crispy as I remember. The skin — supposedly bronzed under a broiler — was distinctly soft.
Was the duck delicious? Of course it was. The meat itself veered from sweet to gamey to earthy in a way that would make most dry-aged steaks taste monochromatic by comparison.
We finished most of it, save the flabby skin. The more generous lamb, in contrast, yielded about two days of leftovers for my companion.
During a slightly more affordable solo meal, I sampled the tartare the night of the snowstorm. I’m not sure it’s worth $29 but it’s a heck of a dish — with the smoky beans imbuing the New York strip with the scent of a flickering candle in a log cabin Airbnb. And after that scent dies down, the irony tang of well-marbled beef lingers on the plate.
Lengua is your go-to main course at dinner. It’s a nearly foot-long portion, cut to the thickness of a diner steak. Any good animal tongue is massively flavorful, and Cosme’s is no exception, so to tame down the beefiness, Soto-Innes tops it with a verdant salad of olives and jalapeno peppers. You then stuff a few slices of tongue into a black-ash tortillas (how metal!) and feel your tongue light ablaze. The tortillas, as it turns out, are infused habaneros. Wicked.
My less-expensive, three-course dinner, which included two cocktails and dessert, wasn’t quite as affordable as I anticipated. I spent $135.
So I’ll stick to brunch, though I’m anticipating that the lamb, which used to be $10, could perhaps skyrocket to $89 one day – just as tasting menu restaurants like Brooklyn Fare go from approachable one day to nearly inaccessible the next, and just as we all move further into the outer boroughs as the rent goes up. That’s New York right?