Cosme NYC: Mexico in the Flatiron District
by Sally Wilson
Here’s a list of things I didn’t try at Cosme NYC and now regret not eating or drinking: a bowl of guacamole at the front bar; a Bonita Applebum cocktail, just to say it aloud; a serve of cobia al pastor; the nixtamalised parsnip, Greek yogurt, banana and amaranth ice cream; and a carajillo to finish, because it was my last night in New York City.
Enrique Olvera has landed on the island of Manhattan, halfway between Broadway and Park Avenue on East 21st Street. He has brought with him a small team from Mexico, along with a lifetime’s supply of corn and a Celorio press capable of pumping out 2,100 tortillas per hour. On a simple speed equation that’s quick enough to beat any New York City cab without breaking a sweat. They’re ready.
Cosme is like an empty chalkboard—all gray walls and pine wood–waiting to be packed each night with food and people. Walk in from the street and you’re instantly elsewhere, amid a bar filled with black Acapulco chairs, mezcal and mini-cacti. It is more than a waiting space, it’s an eatery of its own with a menu that disappears too soon if your table in the restaurant is ready, which is what happened on the night I visited.
Behind a three-quarter high partition wall you will find the proper restaurant, heavily booked until late December. There’s a roughed up sense of luxury about sitting down to tap water served in empty bottles of Casa Dragones tequila. And that’s before the menu appears. Everyone in the restaurant has discarded their New York’s icebreakers and unzipped their appetites. The air is full of conversations bouncing around from mezcal to margarita to Tecate.
Cosme NYC is not the New York office of Pujol. That’s clear from the number of seats (130 all up) to the freedom of choice in the menu, the absence of aged mole and the fuss-free atmosphere. “Cosme is like Pujol’s naughty little brother”, explains Daniela Soto-Innes, the chef de cuisine, with her hands wrist-deep in Oaxacan land-race corn supplied by the maize-evangelists, Masienda. Dani spent a year in the kitchen at Pujol before relocating to New York to open Cosme, so she’s well placed to make the comparison. Tonight, Enrique has left her in charge of the cooking while he spends time at Pujol. The mood she brings to the downstairs kitchen is all about true affection: she hugs pastry chefs and lauds Mariana Villegas—her co-chef de cuisine—for pure ingenuity with a tortilla. They are in love with their new city. If I could cook a duck or make a squash barbacoa with any elegance, I’d sign up to work here.
My guess is that they have a secret ambition at Cosme, one that’s written hypnotically into the duck carnitas and the octopus cocktail—and anything else they serve in a glass or on a plate. It’s to re-invent Mexican food in a city that’s hungry for newness and opposites. You can get a taco or a burrito bowl on nearly every street from the Financial District to Hudson Heights, but you can’t get hoja santa mixed with ricotta to make enfrijoladas. And you won’t find draft ale brewed in Maryland using the house corn anywhere else but Cosme. It’s a style that makes me—and the rest of the tables at the restaurant—want to eat.
First, there were plates of delicate, pink hamachi topped with fine slices of chile serrano and lime juice. Caught up in the moment and mid-way through a margarita I almost asked for a second round. That was before I ended up with my fork in an octopus tentacle and a blue corn kernel the size of a canine tooth. The meat is chewy, the corn is tough and the skin has been kept on the blocks of avocado criollo. I opted for eating this cocktail concoction with my mouth open: evidence of endless delight.
The duck, by the way, is enough to feed a nuclear family and the menu warns you ahead of time that it’s for sharing. It comes out slick and sweet with the look of an instant most-wanted on the main lists. The green salsa side has a welcoming sting and there’s a stack of palm-sized tortillas for DIY taco making. I approached the duck both ways: taco style and straight from the plate, but there was no clear winner. There was a Fidencio mezcalito to my left and an Anti-Histamine cocktail (tequila, honey, bee pollen) to the right. I started to fall a bit in love with the place.
The cervezas and cocktails are served in the same mid-height water glasses and it’s an egalitarian deal that works. There’s a bustling range of mezcales and agaves on the drinks list, from Union to Los Amantes, Alipus and El Jorgorio, and tobalá, madrecuixe, tepaztate and barril. Read on and you’ll get the sense that everyone’s been having fun: cocktails take on alter-egos like El Ninja and The Striptease; there’s a generous range of wines by the glass and you can have your Modelo Especial and Tecate in a can. It’s the little things that make a place right.
It would’ve been a heinous crime to skip dessert when husk meringue and corn mousse was on offer. This dream dish looks like sunlight striking a pale blue cloud on the plate, and the taste is close to it. The lemon cake, with grapefruit and a spoonful or two of quince sorbet, is soft and easily capable of being demolished in one or two attempts. A little late night re-boot, courtesy of the Buna coffee, helped me achieve just that.
Cosme is on hot lists all over the city at the moment and has received its fair share of attention from stalwarts like the New York Times, but don’t let that faze you. After all the fuss dies down, you’re left with a place you want to revisit and a team clearly committed to doing what they’re doing. You can get a $6 beer at the bar and some smashed guacamole. Or you can also opt for a table in the restaurant, with a lobster pibil and a Boundary Breaks Riesling from New York State. I’m up for either prospect.
I do worry about a few things though... The little cacti, for one, that will be due a sun-drenched holiday in Baja California after this year’s New York winter is out. And I worry that I can’t jump on the uptown 6-train and have a duck carnita every Tuesday night. So next time I’m in town I’ve got a date at the bar with a bowl of guacamole and an Expat Martini (gin, cilantro-infused vermouth, Lillet Blanc and house pickled tomatillo). Don’t tell them, but the locals have it good at Cosme.