Friday, June 19, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 1 (Minetta Tavern, Morgenstern's, Cosme)

When the missus and I ate our way across New York City last August, I figured that it'd be a while before I returned (trips these days sans children are few and far between, you know). So you can imagine my delight at hearing that Mrs. Hackknife's company had invited spouses to attend an executive thank-you event in the Big Apple at the beginning of June, spurring me to immediately revisit my NYC restaurant cheat sheet to see which gastronomic gems I might be able to experience this time around. The wife would be in meetings for almost two whole days before the event, allowing me to carefully map out solo dining itineraries (with a few cultural stops to give me valuable digestion time) for the daylight hours and then have the evenings available for fancier dinners with a group of whomever wanted to join us.

Before long, the big event had arrived and off we were to the nation's good eats capital. Our hotel (the Conrad) was located on the lower West Side of Manhattan off the beaten path a bit, near the 9/11 Memorial, the Hudson River, and a very large and renowned French food court across the street in the Brookfield Place building called Le District (not that I ever saw the inside of it). The Battery Park City location of Shake Shack also happened to be conveniently attached to the hotel (despite my cravings for a late night concrete, I didn't go in there, either). No, dear readers, I was completely dialed in to my first day's lunch quarry, an infamous burger alleged to be among the USA's best at a Greenwich Village landmark mere blocks from the hotel.

Minetta Tavern (113 Macdougal Street) is a restored relic of a bygone New York era when the Village was still an outpost for bohemians, writers, and bon vivants. Open since 1937, many famous personages (including e.e. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and, of course, Hemingway, who appears to have gotten blotto in every watering hole from Helena to Havana) had tipped back a few cocktails here - in fact, as one enters, the whole room seems to be frozen in time back to the 1940s. I parked my keester at the bar at approximately the same location where heavyweight champion James J. Braddock held court (at least according to an historic framed photo on a nearby wall) and had a nice conversation with the bartender about my lunch options.

One item that's not original is the menu, which currently features an enticing array of what would be described as bistro fare, such as truffled sausages with raw oysters and a terrine of both oxtail and foie gras (oh my). Tempting as it was to deviate from my plans, I was here for one thing only - the house "black label burger", a slab of ground dry-aged prime beef cuts, grilled medium and served with a topping of rich caramelized onions on a crunchy buttered roll. Feeling especially French-y that day, I opted for a tall glass of Kronenbourg beer to wet my whistle.

At $27, this heavenly creation is not for the tight-fisted and, while I wouldn't necessarily state that it warranted the lofty price tag, it was pretty damn good (maybe $20 worth?). Even the pomme frites were quite tasty, and I would have happily scarfed down the whole lot of them had I not had more eating to do.

After a snappy side trip through the multi-leveled Rubin Museum of Asian Art (as much for metabolic activity as personal enlightenment), I headed towards the Lower East Side for my afternoon treat, eventually reaching a scruffier section of the borough (although less scruffy than it used to be before gentrification) to find Morgenstern's Ice Cream at 2 Rivington Street.

Compact and no-nonsense (cash only, for example), Morgenstern's looks like it's been there for a long time, but only popped onto the scene about 5 years ago when pastry chef Nick Morgenstern decided to take his ultra-popular ice cream cart in Brooklyn to the next level. He describes his ice cream as being "texture-driven and small-batch", focused on inventive flavor profiles like salt and pepper pinenut, cardamom lemon jam, and strawberry durian. Sadly, I couldn't try all the creations and expect to remain conscious for dinner, so I settled on the week's highlighted confection "El Quinto Pino", an olive oil ice cream cone dipped in olive oil-infused chocolate and topped with sea salted crunchy bread crumbs, which was equally luscious and vibrant (his technique reportedly uses less butterfat and sugar to enhance the ice cream's target flavors). I left the shop with pangs of regret that I'd soon have to return to the likes of Dairy Queen and frozen yogurt in Florida to satisfy my sweets cravings.

Another cultural stop (this time to the Tenement Museum) gave me a little time to regroup before dinner. I swung back to the hotel, changed clothes, and took a cab up to the Flatiron District to meet Mrs. Hackknife and our good local friends Adam and Ellen for our much-anticipated dinner at Cosme (35 E. 21st Street). After having received international acclaim for his restaurant Puyol in Mexico City (where he seamlessly blends indigenous Mexican cuisines with modernist techniques), Chef Enrique Olvera opened Cosme in October 2014 as his first state-side venture. As is often the case with new high-profile dining in NYC, reservations can be hard to come by; fortunately, a late night I spent waiting for OpenTable to post new tables paid off and here we were, the 4 of us waiting to dig in.

Cosme initially surprised me on a couple of fronts - the place was much swankier, darker, and louder than I had imagined it would be (almost like a fancy lounge that happened to serve outstanding food) and, in place of the indigenous Mexican cuisine I'd read about from Puyol (no ant eggs here, for example) was a "Mexican-inspired" take on local ingredients from the nearby Hudson Valley, perhaps to widen the appeal for less-adventurous American palates.

We began the evening meal with complimentary chips and a pumpkin seed salsa (see above), along with a number of the interesting cocktails on offer (I greatly enjoyed my Paloma, a concoction of Cimarron Reposado Tequila, grapefruit syrup, lime, soda, and grapefruit salt). Our helpful server suggested a few cold plates to start and we attacked in unison (from left to right below) a tostada topped with uni (sea urchin), avocado, cucumber, and bone marrow salsa, raw hamachi (yellowtail) slices cured with fermented serrano peppers, black lime, and fish sauce, and another tostada with arctic char, trout roe, and avocado, all of which made me think that a Mexican sushi bar would be a hit business venture if I had these chefs cooking in the back.

We followed up the initial onslaught with a lighter and brighter dish of scallops aguachile (sort of a quick-prep ceviche) in a broth of fresh wasabi, cucumber, and lime along with poached jicama.

Vegetables are held in high regard at Cosme, evidenced by the unusual preps available in a vegetable-focused section of the menu. We tried a creamy, potato-based tamal with ayocote beans, ricotta, and morita chile salsa (first picture below), then some purple asparagus with green tomato and green almond salsa (second picture below), followed by a mushroom and squash chilpachole (a spicy stew) with hoja santa, a sassafras-like Mexican herb (third picture below shows all 3 dishes). These plates were delicate and delicious, with the exception of the mushroom/squash chilpachole, at least for me (no surprise there).

Slowed, but not yet defeated, our motley crew pressed onward into the meat section of the menu. Our server recommended the house's two most popular meat entrees, a lobster pibil (meaning "cooked underground" in Mayan) served with black bean puree, chorizo, and mache and a whole cast iron pan filled with duck carnitas for the table to share.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm an avid fan of duck, but one bite of the carnitas meat garnished with onion/radish, doused with some salsa verde, and planted on a fresh corn tortilla and I was ready to kiss our server on the lips. Lost in flavor country, the 4 of us all agreed that this was in the running for dish of the year, completely reducing a very good piece of lobster to virtual irrelevance in the process. Smoky, unctuous, hearty - my adjectives fail me when trying to describe how spectacular the duck was, easily the best $59 we've spent in a while.

We were dazed when the dessert menu arrived. At first, all hands waved it away until I recalled that no less an authority than Frank Bruni (former New York Times food critic) recently proclaimed on Twitter that Cosme's husk meringue with corn mousse was the Platonic ideal of dessert, so, of course, we had to have it. Looking something like a shattered beehive oozing its contents (see photo above), the meringue/mousse combo tasted like the best rice pudding I'd ever had, with the sweet meringue shards providing a perfect contrast to the creamy and slightly earthy mousse, a right bargain at $12.

To recap - if you ever find yourself in New York City with a spare $71 to spend and a friend or two tagging along, be sure to make your way over to E. 21st Street to get duck and husk meringue. Your heart will be happier (if not healthier) for it. And if small bills are all you can pull out of your pocket, the fancy burger at Minetta Tavern and/or any Morgenstern's Ice Cream flavor will also do nicely...

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