There are two audiences for Cosme (35 East 21st Street, 212-913-9659). One of them will be content with a meal of chips and dip, a hamachi crudo, and a margarita or three. These diners will pick at the tame chilaquiles, broadcast a well-clipped photo of the burrata to their Instagram followers, and relish the hype. It will have been a delicious and very expensive meal.
And there is the other audience, the one for whom that meal would rate as merely satisfactory.
Those diners too will find sustenance — if they hunt for it. There are tostadas with the circumference of drink coasters, topped with uni and bone-marrow salsa ($17), three quick bites of sea and earth. There are even stranger (but equally delectable) ones, topped with creamy potato salad and mussels that are pickled and plump ($14).
Cosme is the first U.S. venture for Enrique Olvera, Mexico’s best-known chef. Olvera’s flagship restaurant, Pujol in Mexico City, is critically hailed as the apex of contemporary Mexican cuisine. It’s also the center of a growing empire that includes coffee shops, an upscale burger shack, and restaurants in Playa del Carmen and San Miguel de Allende. What with those endeavors and renovating inflight meals for Aeroméxico, the chef has a full plate, to put it conservatively. His New York City debut has been examined with the sort of scrutiny that can eviscerate, so it’s understandable to see Olvera operate with caution. But raising his guard lowers his voltage. The chef’s potent mind and deft hand have the power to erase people’s preconceptions about Mexican cuisine and to redefine our understanding of what it can be.
In Cosme’s opening months, it was a challenge just to buy a meal there. Reservations were snapped up weeks in advance. Walk-ins, hoping for a seat at the bar, pleaded with the insouciant beauties who woman the entry. There’s a certain muted glamour to the space, which looks like a downtown gallery from the early 1990s: spacious, with errant potted plants and exposed ceiling ducts. The walls are painted an opaque gray that sharply contrasts with the spotlights that illuminate each wooden table. From their elevated perches at the bar, diners may order from an abbreviated menu of perfunctory snacks like quesadillas with habanero salsa ($13) and a tamal made with seasonal vegetables ($14).
In Mexico City, Pujol’s six-course tasting menu (plus amuse-bouches) is 1,160 pesos ($82.85 at 14 pesos to the dollar) — one of the most affordable fine-dining experiences on any continent. It is very easy to spend more than that at Cosme — upward of $100 apiece when you figure in drinks and tip. But spend wisely and you’ll get your money’s worth.
Lobster pibil ($25) has a sweet richness that could have been trampled over by chorizo and black bean but instead was complemented, swept along by the licorice flicker of puréed avocado leaf. Smoked mushroom barbacoa is decorated with green rounds punched out from raw hoja santa, adding a savor of eucalyptus and tarragon to the steam-roasted main ingredient (cremini, shimeji, and chanterelle mushrooms, on my visit). Ayocote bean salad showed uncommon brio for a bowl of legumes and leaves ($15) — it was an oasis of green sprightliness in the dead of winter. The popular duck carnitas for two ($49) is a deboned half of a duck braised with bay leaves, orange, and allspice. It loses some of the tactile pleasure of crisp skin, softening instead beneath a thicket of slivered white onion. But the meat is tender and flavorful, a worthy DIY filling for Cosme’s gossamer tortillas, which resound with aromas of corn.
Olvera hides some of his most impressive tricks in the menu’s dessert section. One night there was a nixtamalized parsnip (treated to the same ancient alkaline soak that’s used to transform maize into masa), shellacked with a crust like crème brûlée, with amaranth ice cream; an empyrean flan made with sweet potato, bathing in a pool of coffee; and a brioche with fermented persimmon marmalade. The husk dessert is an instant classic: a meringue as gray as the walls, riddled with cracks but soft and spongy in the middle. It has a flavor as arresting as its presentation: cold cream, sweetened corn mousse, and a haunting ashiness from totomoxtle, charred husks of corn folded into the egg white.
Service is uncomfortably inconsistent, volleying between polished and stumbling. A server’s description of the pozole as “like, a very traditional Mexican thing” was a forgivable blunder, though the soup, a $22 bowl of warm, wet lettuce that had apparently left the kitchen without being seasoned, was an insipid shame.
Whether you choose to explore Olvera’s wild side or opt not to stray from the mainstream map, you’ll enjoy the sharply attuned cocktails and the house-made tortillas. On many nights Olvera is present, gliding through the shadows of the room, observing the patrons, reading the temperature of his audience. Restaurants are not unchanging epitaphs etched into cold stone. They are evolving entities, slow-moving marathons that shift and, ideally, grow throughout the seasons. At this juncture the chef is playing to both crowds, but there’s plenty of time for him to commit more fully to following his own path.
The guacamole ($9) hints at the dialectical tension at play here. The dish is listed on the menu, but it’s relegated to the far bottom corner. There it is, a purist mash of avocado, onion, and cilantro, hesitantly poised to make the leap off the page as the crowd beneath howls: “Jump!”