November 23, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Cosme: An Exciting Work in Proceso

A buxomy pillow of burrata smothered in “weeds” explodes its creamy corps –enough for the table.

A buxomy pillow of burrata smothered in “weeds” explodes its creamy corps –enough for the table.

           I don’t know Enrique Olvera. I’ve never been to his internationally highly rated Pujol in Mexico City. I’m not sure I ever saw him hurtling through the dining room of Cosme in my two early visits. He’s short and rumpled, a hugger, and is “prone to breaking into a goofy conspiratorial grin,” according to a Boswellian account by the Times’ Jeff Gordinier. Did I see him? I can’t say for sure. The dining room is as dark as a movie theater with bright spotlights on the food that spill over onto my companion’s shiny nose. But I feel I know him thanks to that Times portrait.


In the sooty darkness, a pool of light above every table falls on the plates and maybe your nose.

           He’s worried most New Yorkers have never heard of him. And he’s right. Most have not. But his arrival in town has had the food world hyperventilating for a year. Enough obsessed foodies are on alert. He has ingenuously confided that he doesn’t want to make the mistakes made by Ducasse and Lenôtre long ago. Being humble does the trick. Gilbert Le Coze proved that playing the charming naif when Le Bernardin launched in 1986. 

 
Smoky “noodles” of raw sepia under an avocado crown are tossed with salsa fresca.

           Olvera doesn’t have to worry for a while anyway. The place is already booked through the year, I’ve read. He can count on the congenital first-night nomads who need to be where they think it’s happening. (We decided to just walk in. My friend Barry arrived early and started drinking with two fists in hopes of earning a table.)

 
A savvy crowd – old and young and inbetween – knows this is the place to be right now.

 

          And the first raves and oh-my-gods are wafting in so quickly. When the affluent locals and suburbanites who care about what they eat hear how astonishing, original and marvelous Olvera’s food can be…though small if not skimpy and expensive…they’ll press in, pulling strings, buying tables if need be, to decide on their own.


We’re ravenous by the time the toasted tortillas arrive with pumpkin butter alongside.  

          At that first barge-in, with the service good-natured and agreeable but confused, time stretches for drinks -- I like the rough boozy top note in my friend’s “Jack Be Nimble.”  In the prolonged dangle of waiting, we fall on the basket of large, gnarled blue tortillas tostadas, piling on pumpkin butter even though the crisps are not really that good. (An oiled second round is much tastier.


The three of us share a Barbie portion of sepia and the remarkably fine octopus.

           At last. What we presume are starters arrive. The very brief menu -- just 18 items -- doesn’t distinguish between botanas  (appetizers) and platos fuertes.We admire and photograph the Barbie Doll portions (yes, I am one of those now, often dining with others of the same Instagram ilk). Even a modest share is enough to be instantly seduced by the strong sea taste of smoked sepia, cut in noodles, tartly tossed with raw tomato in a classic salsa Mexicana, crowned with rings of perfect avocado.

 
Is it the pedigree of the octopus, how it lived, how it died or what the chef did that makes it so good?

           These days almost every menu offers octopus. So I’m astonished octopus as exquisitely cooked as these fat chunks make me feel like I’ve never tasted octopus before -- so sweet, and just a little spicy, in a puddle of purple corn atole liquor, under a swirl of red onion, with chunks of cucumber and crunchy corn kernels.


Slices of cobia – a firm, white fish, are somewhat overwhelmed by pineapple salsa.

           But it’s the big, luscious pillow of burrata exploding its creamy core in a green sauce with “weeds” that has us keening and raving. It’s the chef’s gift along with slices of cobia al pastor, firm white fish piled with pineapple sauce and a basket of warm tortillas. We’ve been outed, it seems.

 

 
Duck carnitas for two with giant radish thins, tomatillo and chile de arbol to wrap in tiny tortillas.

           A small basket of exquisite, almost lacy little tortillas arrives with the duck carnitas for two -- pulled flesh with tomatillo and chile de arbol. I have already eaten too much perhaps -- the second basket of corn crisps, the last few spoonfuls of burrata cream. After a scoop of duck in a tiny tortilla, and then another, the dish seems boring. We leave at least a third. East Hampton Nick ‘n’ Toni’s Bonnie Munshin comes by to say hello. My pal goes off to greet Wylie Dufresne. (As if we didn’t already know this was the place to be eating tonight.)

 
A basket of silken little tortillas is $4 to go with the $45 duck carnitas for two (that feeds three or four).

           If you do your research online, the dessert essential will be the slightly salty husk -- meringue oozing corn mousse and sprinkled with powdered vanilla. I’m not a meringue lover, but I seem to be the only one who isn’t an instant fan. “You can taste the corn,” one of my friends exalts.


Raves for the meringue husk filled with corn mousse reverberate on the internet.

 

           Cosme is still in flux if I can believe what I’ve googled and read. There will be rugs soon -- definitely needed to mute the deafening noise in the austere concrete space. Servers have to lean down and in to hear your order. There will be a tortilla shop in Brooklyn, Olvera has declared, selling tortillas in bulk, and just one dish -- a tortilla with avocado and salt for “obviously under a dollar.” 

 
It said “NY Strip” on the menu so we expected a steak, not five puny, oversalted slices.

           Although maybe it won’t be under a dollar. The chef had been quoted as saying he wanted most items at Cosme to be $20 or less. But the sixteen dishes range from $12 to $34, the latter for five tiny and very salty slices of meat listed as NY Strip, with shishitos and a plop of avocado-tarragon purée.


This excellent rustic tamal is wrapped in Swiss chard and topped with fresh ricotta.

           I’m back a week later. The crew seems more coordinated. The big toasted tortilla crisps are rust colored tonight and quite delicious. The two women I’m with are somewhat appeased noticing that their table drinks are more generous than the mean skimps of the bartender. Of course, the couturier ice cubes are pretty big too.


Stop complaining. A small tuffet of lobster pibal with chorizo on black bean puree is only $24.

           I can’t deny them the raw cuttlefish and certainly not the burrata -- it is as buxomly and decadently lush as before -- its voluptuousness barely offset by the wonderful green “weeds.”  Curds of fresh made ricotta lie like a cloud on the rustic and delicious Swiss chard tamal. 


On first tasting, I enjoyed sharing the chilaquiles, but next time, it seemed mostly soggy chips to me. 

           I remember really liking the chilaquiles with its runny egg and queso fresco on my earlier visit. But this time, once the perfect egg is gone, I find it to be just too many soggy taco chips. We’re considering calling in the FBI to investigate what happened to the “NY Strip.” “I was expecting a steak,” cries my companion. “Didn’t you think that sounded like a steak?” And the lobster pibil with chorizo and black beans is dollhouse size and very slightly overcooked. 


The kitchen sends out extra desserts, including a very good deconstructed pineapple cake.

           Of course we must have the husk again. My companions tonight have done their research. We admire the asymmetric stonewear plates -- the house is sending extra desserts, it seems. We all like the pineapple cake. I’m the only one not won by the nixtamalized parsnip mixed with Greek yogurt and banana. They ignore my chocolate mousse. A melt of mezcal–and-orange-touched dark chocolate I could finish.


My two pals are not moved by the chocolate mousse. It tastes like the best melted chocolate to me.

           I can understand if this first impression doesn’t incite you to storm Cosme. But I’ll be going back. Olvera has found an apartment not far away -- his early career began in the city -- and he loves getting reacquainted. He’s promised to divide his time between the kitchen at Cosme and home in Mexico City.  I sense a sorcerer inside that humble hugger. I’ll be waiting to taste what he does next in his campaign to win New York.

35 East 21st Street between Broadway and Park Ave. 212 913 9459. Monday through Saturday 6 to 10:30 pm. Bar is open till 1 pm.  Closed Sunday

 

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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