This week, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviewed the Flatiron District’s Cosme, and found himself completely smitten with chef Enrique Olvera’s cooking, describing it as “a thrill, largely because it sails right over ideas like tradition, authenticity and modernity.” He liked it so much, in fact, that he awarded the restaurant three stars and a glowing review.
At the outset of his review, Wells gave his take on the genre of Mexican cuisine as a whole in the city; the trend of chefs taking immersion trips south of the border has not led to the northern migration of authentic Mexican fare, according to the critic. Instead, the city has been “enjoying a boom in serious Mexican cuisine, when in fact what the city is experiencing is a handful of restaurants that present, some more convincingly than others, a chef’s south-of-the-border fantasies.”
This is not the case when it comes to Cosme, as Olvera is a Mexican-born chef whose “research trips were to Manhattan instead. He studied its dining rooms, its menus, its cocktails and its customers. He was clearly taking notes, because he shows an uncannily state-of-the-art instinct for what New Yorkers want when they go out for dinner.” The underlying message to Wells’ readers here is that the chef delivered the quality food and experience the critic was hoping for.
As usual, Wells includes a small personal story to highlight his experience of the restaurant. In this one, we get a glimpse of grade-school Pete, who used to have the habit of bringing “the purple-smudged handouts still warm from the Ditto copier up to my nose to breathe in their sweet, forbidden, chemical smell, like rubbing alcohol mixed with danger.” He includes this tidbit of personal memory in relation to the fresh tortillas he was served, as “Whenever a stack of fresh tortillas arrived, I would pull one from its folded napkin, hold it up to my face and inhale… The aroma of these tortillas was completely wholesome… but I still wanted to fall headfirst into it the way I did with Ditto solvent.” He then bluntly states, “There are no tortillas remotely like this in New York.” So, dear readers, you’ve been warned by the venerable critic: Olvera’s tortillas might be as addictive that Ditto copier smell is to Wells (or, for a younger generation, perhaps as addictive as those fruit-scented markers from your childhood).
Towards the end, he includes the minor missteps that stood in the way of that coveted fourth star. Firstly, he pointed towards the large bill that’s hard to avoid at Cosme, as the menu “isn’t a lot of help when it comes to suggesting how to put together a meal. Servers will suggest sharing about three dishes for each person at the table… [and] you will pay for the experience. Cosme is an expensive restaurant, where dinner for two with dessert and wine can easily creep beyond $300.” There were also a few less-than-terrific dishes on the menu (“A few dishes leave you wondering momentarily if it’s worth it”) and a lack of great dessert choices, because although “there is an absolute classic on Jesús Terea’s dessert menu… the rest of them tend toward a blandly pleasant sweetness.” However, he insists that “There aren’t many problems like that, though” immediately after making those criticisms.
I reached out to the team at Cosme to find out their thoughts on Wells’ assessment, and managing partner Santiago Perez said, “Of course we are flattered by the positive comments, but we are also aware there's a long way ahead. We believe in our concept and need to stay true to it. The most important thing is to keep the majority of our guests happy and will make adjustments as we see fit.”
It’s probably a safe bet that none of those adjustments will be to Olvera’s style of cooking because, as Wells closes he review, he bestows upon Olvera the praise so many chefs in the city have fallen short of receiving from the critic when he writes that the chef’s food “isn’t the kind of Mexican cooking that can be learned on a vacation. It has to be lived, and for that there are no shortcuts.”