Eating My Way Through New York: Chef-Tastic
When planning this trip to New York, one of the places highest on my list to dine was Cosme.
A couple of years ago, while attending the “Worlds of Flavor” conference at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone campus in St. Helena, I had a chance to try a little of Mexico City-chef Enrique Olvera’s innovative cuisine.
Ever since, I have been hooked. And craving more.
This is not your standard tacos and burritos taqueria. This sleek establishment is all about modern Mexican cuisine with star power. The prices reflect that. Yes, guacamole is $17 here. It’s a beautiful bowl of deeply rich smashed avocados strewn with micro herbs and served with huge purple tortilla chips that you break apart to scoop.
If you’re already balking at that price, then this isn’t the place for you. When you walk through the doors, you have to vanquish the notion that Mexican food has to be cheap in order to be worthwhile.
You can get a tostada here, but one topped with uni and bone marrow salsa ($21) that is as wonderful as it sounds.
The El Ninja cocktail ($17) will satisfy any gingerholic like me. You can really taste the pure, fresh ginger juice in it, along with smoky mezcal, gin, vermouth, and shiso. It is garnished with a big chewy, sweet, dried pineapple ring to sooth the heat of the ginger that is sure to warm your throat.
We came for the famous duck carnitas, a family-style dish meant for sharing. It’s a whopping $89, but it’s also an entire duck that takes four days to prepare and confit.
For the two of us, it was more than enough with just two appetizers beforehand. It’s served with mild and hot salsas, lime wedges, and a big stack of soft, purple corn tortillas.
The duck falls apart at the touch of a fork. Spear some to fold inside a tortilla. A squeeze of lime helps cut through the fatty unctuousness of the meat, as do the salsas. It’s probably the most decadent taco you’ll ever enjoy — a little gamey, a whole lot rich, and far more memorable than any ordinary carnitas.
It’s one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, as evidenced by how many orders we saw coming out of the kitchen that night.
The only way to end the meal is with the signature husk meringue ($16), a unique creation that has become synonymous with Olvera’s talents. Charred, ground corn husk is actually whipped into egg whites and sugar to create a crisp, airy meringue shell. It is then split open and filled with softly whipped cream and a velvety corn mousse that tastes like the best summer corn magnified. It’s sweet, yet savory, and even a little spicy from restrained flecks of chili powder.
It is like nothing else you’ve ever had. And it is flat-out sensational. You know how else I know when a dessert is a winner? My husband, aka Meat Boy, will always say at the end of the meal that he doesn’t want any dessert even if I order one. Yet if it’s a great one, he will slyly dip his spoon into it until he’s demolished half of it, which is what he did with this one.
Cosme may blow your budget, but it does so sweetly, sending out mango pate de fruit with the bill. Flecked with salt, lime and chili, it is reminiscent of the favorite street-food preparation of mango, but born anew.
Chef Michael White’s Michelin two-starred temple to seafood and pasta, Marea, has been on my radar for a long time. I’m just glad I finally had a chance to experience it.
This polished restaurant, with its golden glow, glamorous red accents and servers in sharp suits, is definitely made for a special occasion.
Although dishes can be ordered a la carte, the restaurant recommends a $109 four-course prix fixe that allows you to choose a crudo; oysters or antipasto; pasta; fish or meat entree; and dessert from all that’s offered on the regular menu. That’s the way we went.
After an amuse of a crunchy fritter of creamy cauliflower dabbed with caper aioli, we dove in. I chose to pay a $10 supplement to try a trio of crudo: sweet, delicate Pacific langoustine sprinkled simply with Murray River pink salt from Australia; branzino dolloped with sturgeon caviar and mussel vinaigrette; and kinmedai (golden eye snapper) enlivened with onion confit and lemon. It may have been a small portion, but there was no doubting how pristine the seafood was.
In comparison, my husband’s grilled octopus was a surprisingly large tentacle. It was tender and smoky, with a swirl of creamy tonnato to drag it through.
Marea is famed for its fusilli tossed with red wine-braised octopus and bone marrow. It’s dreamy alright. The wine sauce, thick as gravy, tastes like it was simmered for hours. The chewiness of the fusilli married with the toothsome yet tender pieces of octopus. And every now and then, my fork would hit a bit of buttery bone marrow. Talk about striking the mother lode.
My husband’s tagliolini was just as delicious, redolent of clams, calamari and peperoncino in a brothy, briny-olive oil sauce that clung to every supple strand.
Roasted halibut was moist with a lovely golden sear. A ragout of artichokes, purple snap peas, and potatoes brought out the best in each vegetable. Trout roe was sprinkled around, adding a surprise burst of salinity.
Red snapper was lusciously tender, surrounded by eggplant puree, cucumbers, pistachios, and cippolini onions.
For dessert, you can never go wrong with Italian donuts, especially these, which arrived almost too hot to handle, and flavored with banana. Dip them with abandon into chocolate-hazelnut and lemon cream sauces for a real treat.
Another dessert spotlighted figs — in an intense sorbet and in a compote with rosemary — crowning a pine nut panna cotta. The pine nut flavor really carried through, along with the almost port-like flavor of the figs.
Dinner ends with one of the best mignardise I’ve ever had. And one of the most delightful. S’mores cookies. They’re like clouds of espresso mascarpone floating on crisp chocolate cookie wafers. Sweet dreams were made of this — for sure.
You know you’re eating at a fine restaurant when you spot Ruth Reichl at another table. But then again, I’ve never had a bad meal at any Mario Batali restaurant, and I’ve eaten at quite a few of them.
Casa Mono is a tapas bar that is pure pleasure. The Michelin-starred restaurant is compact, convivial and crowded. We were lucky to snag seats at the bar late one evening.
Over glasses of rose, we indulged in food that was simple, rustic and spot-on. Batali and his chefs know how to use basics such as lemon, garlic and salt in harmony to their fullest potential to bring out the true essence of fish, meat and vegetables.
I don’t find razor clams ($19) on menus in the Bay Area as much as I would like. So when I do spot them, I can’t help but order them. Here, they’re cooked simply on the plancha in their own natural, sweet juices. The grill adds a wisp of smokiness to the slippery tender long clams.
Fried sardines ($18) come on the bone. But it’s easy enough to pick the flesh off with a fork. The oiliness of the fish is cut by the piquant pickled piquillo peppers.
Goat confit ($20) rests on a bed of thick avocado-queso cream, pistachios, and pureed ash-cooked scallions in olive oil. The goat is meaty, less robust than beef, and incredibly tender.
Even a simple side of mushrooms cooked with garlic ($10) makes you sit up and take notice because it is seasoned so perfectly here.
You notice the attention to details with the buttery, orange-scented almond cake, too. It’s draped with boozy slices of nectarines that have been bruleed for a thin topping of crackling crunch.
After that fine experience at a Batali establishment, we high-tailed it to another on our last day in Manhattan. This is actually the third time I’ve eaten at Lupa, and it remains a favorite.
It embodies delicious, familiar food done exceedingly well.
Even at lunch, you’re presented with an amuse. This time, crostini smeared with a creamy puree of fava beans.
I can make a meal entirely of the antipasti here, as they are always fantastic. Sardines ($13) are big, plump and magnificent with their perky, tangy citrus marinade. Crunchy fried garbanzos strewn over as addictive as popcorn.
Even a simple escarole, walnut, red onion and Pecorino salad ($13) gets attentively plated, with the leaves arranged to cover the entire plate just so after being tossed with just the right amount of vinaigrette.
Linguine with rock shrimp, mussels and fennel ($21) was a bountiful portion loaded with seafood. My husband ordered it, but I kept digging my fork into his plate until he shooed me away. That’s how divine it was.
Having recently tried George Mendes’ food when he was a guest chef at “San Jose’s Michelin All-Star Experience” at Adega restaurant in San Jose’s Little Portugal neighborhood, I was interested in trying more from this chef who garnered the first Michelin star for a Portuguese restaurant in the United States. (Note: Adega was the recipient last year of a Michelin star, the first one for the city of San Jose, and the second for a Portuguese restaurant in this country.)
It is named for the Portuguese word for “hops,” and craft beers are central at this restaurant built around a dramatically lighted bar. There’s also a good wine selection, and a fine Por Do Sol Negroni ($14) cocktail that has a haunting bitter orange note.
Bacalhau croquettes ($12) are a classic. Football-shaped, they have crunchy exteriors and creamy interiors of whipped salted cod. They get spiced up with piri piri mayo.
Big-Eye Tuna “Cru” ($18) brings raw tuna ribbons in a pool of creamy coconut milk infused with fragrant kaffir lime, earthy and spicy fermented Serrano peppers, and fresh mint. It’s refreshing, and you won’t be able to stop spooning up the sauce.
The Creekstone Skirt Steak Assado ($29) is a big 8-ounce portion cooked over a wood-fire to seal in it juices. It arrives hidden under a mountain of delicious garlicky broccoli rabe.
Arroz De Lulas ($26) is served in an individual cast-iron pot. It’s a little like paella, with grilled calamari and rice cooked in a vivid shellfish broth. It didn’t have the crisp layer of rice at the very bottom of the pan. But it was true comfort food, with every forkful making me feel cozier and cozier.
Portuguese custard tarts ($7 for two) boasted flaky crusts and eggy, almost creme brulee-like centers.
Here’s hoping Portuguese cuisine continues to grow in prominence in this country.