When superstar chef Enrique Olvera made his New York debut with Cosme in 2014, he didn’t just give the city one of its best new fine dining spots; he raised the bar on what Mexican restaurants could charge for labor-intensive moles, raw fish tostadas, and other dishes whose prices might have not ruffled as many feathers at upscale European brasseries or chophouses. Cosme’s two-deep bar crowds showed that New Yorkers were ready for delicious, innovative, and expensive Mexican fare.
This brings up what I call the Olvera Rule. If a modern Mexican restaurant is called Cosme, related to Cosme, or is run by a Cosme alum, it’s probably going to be pricey. That’s not a bad thing. Olvera’s own Atla gave the city an all-day cafe like no other, serving breathtaking shrimp caldo and cecina steaks in its heyday. Then about a year ago, ex-Cosme staffer Christopher Reyes launched Aldama, a late-night Brooklyn spot hawking electric vegan tostadas and succulent pork tacos slicked with modernist fruit gels.
In February, Ensenada in Williamsburg became the latest member of this small, select, group. Chef Luis Herrera and beverage director Jorsand Diaz, both Cosme graduates, have joined forced with co-owner Bryce David to serve traditional aguachiles and experimental fish tacos — easily some of the city’s best.
The North Brooklyn hotspot — previously home to a vegetarian Mexican restaurant — occupies a deceptively casual-looking corner space on Borinquen Place. Childlike depictions of underwater creatures adorn a brick wall painted white. Backless bar stools look salvaged from an old restaurant supply store. Does the venue not sometimes feel like a mid-range margarita bar? Bartenders ask if you’d like to do a mezcal shot. Dudes boast about that illegal rave they went to in Prague while shouting about plans to knock back some tequila. This isn’t where you expect to pay top dollar for anything.
Then you notice that ceviches can hit $26. The only tlayuda, that classic street food, comes slathered in chorizo and octopus and runs $41. And unless you’re paying in cash, the restaurant tacks on a four percent credit card convenience fee. Ensenada is one of New York’s more expensive Mexican seafood spots — but it’s also a heck of a place to eat.
Herrera, who also worked at the two Michelin-starred Blanca, deploys fruit creams, sesame seeds, XO sauces, apples, yuzukosho, curry paste, and scores of other pantry items to produce a global gem of a Latin mariscos menu.
Aguachiles come in a choice of rojo, negra, amarillo, or verde. Order the black variety and Herrera, a native of Venezuela, will send out a shallow bowl bobbing with sugary scallops, octopus that isn’t afraid to show off its ample gelatins, and a punch of habanero that elicits a serious brow sweat. It’s a particularly expensive aquachile at $27 — but that doesn’t seem like overkill for a shareable dish, especially in an era when smaller, run-of-the mill shrimp cocktails can cost more.
Tacos are even better. Herrera places a golden baton of tempura fried cod above a thin purple tortilla — a chromatic profile of a Lakers jersey. The salted fish packs the briny sweetness of a scallop, while the light corn tortilla dampens the saline tang. Each bite yields a powerful crunch. Cost: $16 for two. That same price also gets you grilled blue shrimp tacos; what the crustaceans lack in maritime complexity they make up for in warming guajillo spices. A dose of chipotle mayo jolts the palate with a strategic dose of smoke.
Still, those are just snacks.
Remember when Cosme garnered all sorts of fame for its hulking duck carnitas, paired with tortillas for DIY tacos? What folks should really be talking about these days is Ensenada’s al pastor branzino ($46).
The supple flesh, painted red with spices, bounces like a lightly toasted marshmallow. The sweet, fishy fats do their best impression of candy, amplified by a generous layer of pineapple chutney. Pulsating notes of ancho then bring things back into savory territory. Pile everything onto a tortilla and add a dollop of pineapple butter, a condiment that tastes like what would happen if someone dropped a tropical cheesecake into a Ninja blender. It amps up the creaminess factor while doubling down on the fruit flavors in a way that is both tasty and hilarious, as if one were putting cinnamon raisin cream cheese on a cinnamon raisin bagel.
Even luckier diners might snag an order of the deep-fried skate wing ($35); I scored the last one on a Friday just after 8:30 p.m. A blond shell of batter hides soft, ropy flesh. Rip off a segment, shove it into a tortilla, and you have yourself a spectacular taco. Thing is, Herrera refuses to stop there.
The chef slathers large swaths of the skate with salsa seca — a house-made XO sauce with dried shrimp, scallops, and sesame seeds. It jazzes up the fish’s neutral flavors with a hit of nuttiness and a light coastal funk. Herrera also throws in a small pool of Oaxacan mole amarillo — furtively laced with Thai curry paste, coconut milk, and labneh. The aromatic concoction somehow tastes like the world’s best pumpkin-spiced latte.
You pile as much as you can into a yellow tortilla, redolent of warm maize, and dredge the front end in that bright mole. The dish has more ingredients than the salad buffet at Sizzler, but gosh, every single element comes through with perfect clarity, like a starry summer night in the countryside. This just might be the taco of the year.
Around 10:30 p.m., as staffers gather DJ equipment for the Black Flamingo nightclub downstairs, a bartender might ask if you’d like a shot of mezcal. I advise you to accept that offer, and think about how the Olvera diaspora and others are pushing Mexico’s diverse foodways even further into the flavor stratosphere.