Seemingly forever, with a few notable exceptions¹, Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico has been little more than a reduction of a few, formulaic dishes, utilizing Mexican or Mexican-like ingredients that were locally available. That was indeed a major shame, as Mexican cooking is one of the world’s great and most diverse cuisines. While much of what was prepared was still quite tasty and representative of regions where the cooks emigrated from, only an extremely small range of Mexican product and cooking was represented and the extent of that high quality cooking was very limited geographically. Fortunately, that has recently been changing and the United States and even Europe has benefited from a rapid expansion of Mexican cuisine into those regions². NYC has recently seen an explosive growth in the diversity, quality and creativity of Mexican inspired cuisine and since the fall, has boasted a new restaurant from the man who is arguably the most important chef in Mexico today – Enrique Olvera³.
Cosme opened with great fanfare last October. I have now been three times starting with an invited visit during the Friends and Family pre-opening, followed by a 25th birthday celebration for my eldest son in December and most recently, this May, as I came to the city to get together with an old friend from out of town. This progression of visits provided a rare opportunity for me of observing the evolution of a high profile restaurant from its very beginning to just over six months in. To my palate, Cosme has been very good from the get-go, but perhaps as might be expected, has improved with each visit, especially in terms of the style, service and ambiance.
Over the course of my three visits, I was able to observe the evolution of a few repeated dishes, while experiencing a large swath of the restaurant’s offerings. The dish that really stood out to me the most on that first visit was the Husk Meringue with Corn Mousse, which even then, was one of the finest desserts that I can recall⁴. Fortunately, that hasn’t changed and has been a constant over my three visits. It is still as sensational as ever, as close to perfect as a dessert can be. The flavor is that of the corn ideal – sweet, but not too sweet with an incredible depth of corn flavor. It does for corn what the Adria spherical olives and its descendants have done for olives. This had no reason to change and thankfully hasn’t.
Having the Corn Husk Meringue as an immediate signature dessert is probably both a blessing and a curse. It is good enough to have on each and every visit and may even be considered good enough to be a requirement on each and every visit – something to ground and tie together one’s various experiences within the sphere of this new gem of a restaurant. That is the blessing. The curse is that it is extremely difficult for other desserts to stand up and match it. That’s not to say that other desserts aren’t good. A recent mamey based special was refreshing, delicious and delightful, but its memory doesn’t stick the way Cosme’s Corn Husk Meringue does. Few desserts do.
It seems that it is only relatively recently that Mexican seafood dishes are garnering the respect that they deserve outside of Mexico and they do deserve much respect. From the increasingly popular Baja fish tacos to ceviches to aguachiles to all sorts of other wonderful traditional and new seafood dishes, the wealth of Mexico’s coastlines is beginning to make its way north of the border whether directly or through Mexican influenced interpretations. Olvera and Cosme’s Co-Chef de Cuisines Daniela Soto-Innes and Mariana Villegas are doing a superb job of helping to lead the charge north with a significant portion of its menu devoted to creatures from the sea.
Aguachiles are essentially even fresher versions of ceviches. The latter are intended to marinate over some time, while an aguachile fuses lime juice with chiles macerated in water with the intention of immediate service. The seafood remains essentially raw as it hasn’t had time to be fully cooked by the citric acid, yet the citrus flavor components remain strong along with those from the chiles. The example above, from December, was fresh, invigorating and delicious with good, clean crunch, plenty of acid and wasabi for the heat, an unusual touch.
A more recent example from just a couple weeks ago, had the same great flavors and textures, but the presentation was even tighter and prettier.
That aguachile was the only repeat seafood dish I had over those few visits. It really shouldn’t be such a surprise though, given the menu’s very strong seafood focus. Smoked raw sepia was a dish not likely to be found on most traditional Mexican menus, but here, combined with a traditional Salsa Mexicana and avocado, it felt totally natural within the context of this restaurant.
The same was true for this December octopus cocktail with purple occidental corn chile atole, red onion and charred avocado, though, it could easily have come direct from the Baja coastline. It is these fresh, clean and creative takes on seafood with Mexican flavors, favorites within Mexico, that I am particularly excited to find in a NYC restaurant.
Being “Mexican” does not necessarily mean being a slave to Mexican ingredients or tradition any more than being “American” means being a slave to “American” ingredients, whatever they may be. Hamachi, though, as its name implies, is probably most closely associated with Japanese cuisine, but it also can be found in Mexican waters along the Pacific coast, where it is more well known as amberjack or almaco jack. Here, Olvera and his team use another classic Mexican product, the serrano chile, to complement the raw fish, but they add a contemporary technique plucked from the past, by fermenting the chile with citrus zest and lime juice. Additional creative stamps include adding Asian touches like fish sauce and dried Persian black limes, which are grated over the top. While the dish may be an amalgamation of cultures, that is not how it tastes, which is as if all of those ingredients were meant to be together and to have come from Mexico.
Clams are quite popular in Mexico and of excellent quality, but, razor clams are not a product that I would typically associate with Mexico or Mexican cuisine. These raw Massachusetts razor clams, treated with an unlikely combination of Crystal hot sauce and celery salsa (celery and serrano juices mixed with celery leaves, julienned carrots, avocado and cilantro stems), however, fit right in and combine Mexican culinary spirit with a great northeastern US product.
Enrique Olvera is, amongst other things, a master of re-interpreting traditional Mexican fare and making it his own. Tacos al pastor are a well known street food classic. Typically made with layers of seasoned pork roasted on a rotating spit, the technique, similar to shawarma, arrived in Mexico brought by Lebanese immigrants early in the Twentieth Century. Aside from placing the meat within tacos instead of pitas⁵, the dish includes roasted pineapple and cilantro as well as salsas, chiles, onions and other condiments that can be added by the diner. Cosme’s version takes the radical step of substituting cobia, a full flavored fish, for the pork, while retaining the other traditional elements, albeit within an elevated form. The Cosme seafood version loses nothing in flavor, while adding plenty of fun, ingenuity and elegance. The cobia, a fish native to Mexican waters and elsewhere was marinated with “pastor” seasonings, seared in lard over a high heat, sliced and served rare. It’s garnished with thinly sliced pineapple, onion rings, serrano chiles, cilantro and lime juice. The cooked pineapple puree is finished with butter after it had been reduced to concentrate the pineapple flavors. As with all of the dishes, it was served with freshly made Mexican heirloom corn tortillas.
As exciting and creative as those other seafood dishes are, this is NYC, where at a restaurant with the expectations of a place with the pedigree of Cosme, a touch of luxury fine dining is essential. Again, Olvera, Soto-Innes, Villegas and the Cosme team have played with a Mexican classic, this time from the Yucatan, and substituted seafood for pork. Being New York, however, this was a great way to add panache in the form of lobster standing in for the pork. The flavors and textures sparkled, while the elegance and imagination displayed, put the dish squarely over the top.
Lobster is certainly elegant, but what is more elegant than caviar? We were given a special treat during my last visit – corn based Mexican blinis with California caviar, elderberries and crema with chapulines (crickets) – a Mexican touch, for sure!
Out of all the superb seafood dishes, though, the greatest standout for me was the uni tostada, a dish that has come to be a signature for the first part of a Cosme meal the way the Husk Meringue and Corn Mousse has become a dessert staple. A dressing made with steamed then broiled bone marrow is used to create a salsa that adds immeasurable depth to the already deep and satisfying Maine uni, avocado slices and crisp-fried corn tortilla. This dish appears every bit to be, on the surface, street food, like what inspired it, however it is anything but. This is elegant, deeply delicious and totally satisfying, my favorite savory bite over all of my visits.
As facile as Olvera, Soto-Innes, Villegas and their crew are making delicious dishes with creatures from the sea, the land beckons as well and not just as supporting elements for brinier beings. Beans are an essential component of the Mexican kitchen. At Cosme, they are earthy and delicious with a presentation that elevates both in terms of visual appeal and in flavor and textural complexity, all while using basic components of the Mexican culinary arsenal. This is street food, but at an exalted level. The best street food is hearty and delicious, satisfying in an honest soulful way. This dish not only satisfies through its flavors, its association with humbler beginnings and via an appreciation for the understanding of its humbleness, but also the imagination and skill wielded in its transformation to something even more.
Mushrooms are often used as meat substitutes or adjuncts. They tend to have high umami quotients like red meats and are truly savory treats. In this dish, they team with squash, another of the Mexican vegetable trinity along with beans and corn, to create a dish that is rich both in flavor and texture.
It might seem that Cosme, if not for vegans, might be a good restaurant for vegetarians, especially those who eat seafood, and given the dishes that I have highlighted so far, that would be true. Carnivores need not feel entirely ignored though, as the treatment of various meats are also inventive and well prepared. The third dish that has become a true signature of the restaurant is their Duck Carnitas, a dish more typically made with pork, usually the shoulder.
The dish has become one of the restaurant’s essentials and the volume of ducks hanging in the walk-in is a testament to that.
The duck is simmered long and slow with a variety of traditional ingredients, resulting in a dish that is conversely both elegant and pleasing to the eye, and given the service designed for sharing (an entire breast under a mound of white onions, radishes and a deconstructed salsa verde) a stimulus for gluttony. The meat is tender, citrusy and rich with a variety of flavors moving effortlessly across the tongue and a texture that only juicy, well-braised meat can provide. There isn’t much meat on the menu at Cosme, but what is there truly belongs.
The beverage program at Cosme is very good with a strong international wine program⁶ and fine cocktails, but the real standout aspect for me is the selection of agave based spirits, in particular the Mezcales and other agaves. On one visit to celebrate my son’s birthday, we commissioned a tasting of six different agaves – five Mezcales and one Raicilla. Each one was distinct, but all sharing degrees of smokiness. The minerality, fruit, smoothness and complexity were strong in each, even as they carried different weights and textures amongst them. Nevertheless the quality, distinctiveness and pleasure of sipping these fine spirits was evident to each of the six adults as we took a sip of each and passed the glass around. This was a fun treat that is not available at this level at this time in many other NYC establishments.
My latest visit added to the experience and for something unusual and wonderful, my friends and I were gifted a bottle of special Peruvian Pisco, Inquebrantable No. 10, that wowed us all, breaking through borders to show us how great Pisco can be.
The food at Cosme is unlike anything anywhere else in NYC or the United States for that matter, even in Mexico. While clearly related to its sister restaurant, Pujol, the food at Cosme has its own voice. That voice is clearly Mexican, albeit without much of the pre-Columbian contributions that are on the menu at Pujol such as escamoles, an ingredient in a dish at Pujol that was a major part of my favorite dish of the year for 2012. While escamoles are truly special, and I, for one, would welcome them at Cosme, they are rare and not necessary for NYC at this time. Chapulines were present in one of my dishes, though not in a form recognizable as such. Insects are an important element of Mexican culinary tradition, and they are likely on their way in the US too. I wouldn’t be surprised to eventually see them more prominently on the menu at Cosme down the road, but they aren’t the focus of what Olvera is trying to do and there is much more than enough in the Mexican culinary canon that they don’t need to be his focus. His food at Cosme, while true to Mexico, is suitable for New York palates. There is plenty new to be excited about and the culinary execution has gotten better and better. The bottom line, is that Cosme, while having a Mexican heart, was designed to be a New York restaurant, and it is. It is busy, loud (perhaps a bit too loud – it’s biggest flaw), chic and just a bit crazy in the NYC way. It is cool Mexican fine dining with hot New York style. I’m loving this new influx of Mexican fine dining in NYC and elsewhere. ¡Viva Mexico! ¡Viva la cocina Mexicana!
¹Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Topolobampo were the premiere exceptions, creating fabulous Mexican inspired cooking in Chicago well before anyone else was doing anything near the same caliber anywhere outside of Mexico (unless one considers the street foods of Southern California and Tex-Mex cuisine, which present their own sub-identities). It was Bayless who first introduced me to the staggering potential of Mexican cuisine, including a visit to Enrique Olvera and his still relatively new Pujol, during a culinary trip to Mexico back in 2006.
²Spain in particular, has become the home of top-notch Mexican cooking. Albert Adria’s and Paco Mendez’ Hoja Santa and Ninno Viejo are both world-class examples of outstanding Mexican cooking outside of Mexico. I am also particularly looking forward to eventually visiting Rosio Sanchez’ new Mexican restaurant in Copenhagen, Hija de Sanchez. Some of this recent growth seems to be an outgrowth of the superb, international Mesamerica Congresses held over the past three years. These Congresses have highlighted the breadth and depth of Mexican cooking for both native and international attendees.
³Olvera’s Mexico City flagship restaurant Pujol has been a major instrument in modernizing Mexican cooking while staying true to its roots and traditions. He has also been the driving force behind the Mesamerica Congresses. He is a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America. For a beautiful photographic overview of the progression of Pujol see Adam Goldberg’s retrospective at A Life Worth Eating.
⁴The Husk Meringue and Corn Mousse was so good, it made my list of favorite dishes from 2014, coming in the 7th spot as the only dessert.
⁵In Puebla, Tacos Arabes are served alongside Tacos al Pastor. While some of the seasonings may be different, both are made with pork, but the Arabes are served in rolled up pitas, while the al pastor is served with corn tortillas.
⁶The wine program is a work in progress. Pujol, in Mexico City, has a list rich in quality Mexican wines and beers, most of which, are not yet available in the United States. I hope and expect some of the best of these to start showing up on Cosme’s list.