Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Surprisingly, the Phillipe Chow disclosure was not printed on the porcelain.
"*Red Stixs has no affiliation with Philippe Chow or any Philippe Chow Restaurant."  This disclosure
is posted anywhere it can be, apparently at the bequest of the Chow group, with which some of the Red Stixs personnel used to be in cahoots.  The Chows required this stipulation, and Red Stixs's owner conceded saying he would have to keep it visible as such for a couple of years... but if this restaurant lasts that long I will be astounded.  But the one thing that the two restaurants DO share, despite their refusal to play nice with one another in the sandbox, is an overwhelming mediocrity.

To be fair, had I microwaved this food as a a prepackaged frozen entree, I may have been pretty impressed.   Across the board, flavors are monotone, predictable: rarely more than a sum of their parts.  This is the un-Chinese-iest of Chinese foods, mollified for a moneyed, pedestrian palate, who
 don't mind paying too much just to be fed, conveniently and a somewhat chi-chi atmosphere.  There was no punch or vim in anything we tried.  The only advantage this place has is its location:  right in the heart of the Murray Hill food desert, there
really aren't a lot of other options, either.   But for a "Chinese" restaurant to start us off which a tossed salad was just one of the many red flags, all the while accompanied with the signature red stix (sic) with which to eat it.  Not a bad salad, lightly dressed greens fresh as could be, but nothing grander than that, and nothing Asiany at all,
but for a touch of sesame and soy in the vinaigrette.  Fried spring rolls were slightly more successful, but hardly outclassing something you could bake up yourself from Trader Joe's.  They had a bounty of filling, though, tasty mushrooms and cabbage etal., and the wrapper wasn't too greasy, and quite exquisitely crispy.  We selected the vegetarian version of the lettuce wraps, the best part of which was the pale, crisp leaves of iceberg, thick and turgid, and so fun to indulge in after so many servings of mesclun and spring greens.  The filling was wildly less entertaining,

primarily composed of coarsely chopped nuts with cubes of flavorless zucchini and a thick,
 sugary plum sauce to glue things into place.

Chicken satay were strangely tender- soft, even- and even more strangely hued, aside from the fact that satay aren't even Chinese.  Coated in a vivid orange, they imparted a good chicken flavor if you could get past the salt, and were served with a cloying peanut sauce that could be a delicious ice cream topping.  Dumplings arrived in traditional woven baskets, steaming and fragrant.  They were thin-skinned and toothsome, probably one of the safer bets on the menu.

Mixed veg s you've had all of everywhere.
Mixed vegetables... well, you've had them before.  In a cornstarch-thickened white sauce, again too
salty, but the melange of vegs themselves retained a nice al dente freshness- and it's always a joy to eat bamboo shoots.    Chicken and broccoli achieved that same appealing tenderness of chicken, broccoli bright, but again, salt was the prevailing flavor component.    Beijing Chicken's poultry chunks lost the advantage of that tenderness, hardened by overcooking in its dark, bacony gravy, sweet and heady, becoming just about as firm and chewy as the  big toasted walnuts that accompanied it.  Fried rice gained points for presentation, served
 from attractive tall metal vessels, but was more appealing in situ than on the plate.  The weird squiggles of (alas, more) chicken added an almost comical component, and the taste didn't go leaps and bounds to override the cloche of mediocrity prevailing over the restaurant as a whole.

Actually, in addition to the iceberg lettuce, the only really noteworthy thing I ate that night was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream from an assortment of gelatos and sorbets (mango, coconut, raspberry, etc.)  that came out to finish things off.  Red Stixs pretty much fails on all counts, but that one white orb, one that has no exclusivity to the restaurant, and nothing at all to do with Chinese food, ended the meal quite pleasantly.

216 E. 49th St. between 2nd & 3rd Avenues 
tel 1-646-964-5878

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Cosme would be one of those see-and-be-seen kind of joints, were it not so dark and cavernous that it's hard to see where you're going, let alone who else might be there when you are.  And being there isn't the easiest feat to accomplish in the first place; reasonable dining times are next to impossible to come by, even now that it's been open over eight months.  Enrique Olvera caused quite a stir opening up his first New York venture, and the buzz is still fairly audible, if not as deafening as it was in October.  Thankfully, though, some of the best dishes that I had heard about then were still on the menu for my visit, elevating the experience past some of its more obvious missteps.

The darkness of the room was exacerbated by a rather lackluster greeting by two bored  hostesses- young girls casually clad that contradicted the pedigree of the restaurant.   Our server was more adept, describing the layout of the menu and making some recommendations upon our request, although somehow he managed to dribble red wine all over the tabletop each time he poured from the bottle.  And made no attempt to swab it up, nor apologize for the drips, although it's possible he may not have even noticed what was happening in the dimness of the light.  The walls and floors are
 cement grey, concentrated spotlights cast circumspect orbs of light on the walls and tables creating a moody, mysterious ambiance that I wish had conveyed more strongly onto the menu.  Freshness and lightness prevails, which is novel to typical American renditions of Mexican food. too often glopped with cheese or sauce over greasy starches.  Not at all here at Cosme, where in fact, if anything, it could use a little more depth and substance.  The menu is divided into three sections, although they don't vary greatly in price, but apparently separate the heartier flavored dishes from the lighter ones.  It would seem more that the it goes from seafood to vegetables to what might feasibly constitute entrees.  True to that description, however, our initial dishes selected from the first section, were all freshness and light, razor clams which slipped neatly off their elongated shells, brightened with citrus and a zip of crystal hot sauce.  I wasn't expecting a raw clam on this one, but most of the dishes from this first menu section qualify under the guise of crudo.  
Scallop aguachile touted poached jicama, which I was excited try having only ever eaten jicama in its crudite state, but instead, both the scallops and the jicama seemed untouched by heat, only gently cured by the zesty wasabi-cucumber-lime brine in which they floated.  The crisp jicama discs contrasted playfully with such delicate tender scallops, so deceptively similar to the eye but starkly contrary in texture.  My favorite dish arrived next, however: big hunks of king crab leg nestled into a zesty Mexican gribiche studded with salty capers and a flourish of chervil.  The flavors were bright and sharp while rich and luxurious as the same time, served with a crunchy , meta-tortilla chip to render it scoopable.  So far, this would be the only dish I would've returned for, and return for it I happily would.

From the second section (all varying degrees of vegetarian) we chose a purple asparagus, mysteriously bereft of any white eggplant, but lavishly doused in a picante green salsa, which may have been a little overpowering for the vegetal stalks.  They did, however, retain their signature purple tips, ingeniously steamed just long enough to tenderize the sturdy stalks but without sacrificing their regally-hued crowns.
Surprisingly, this dish was better than a much-anticipated mushroom and squash barbacoa, astronomically priced at $26 for an embarrassingly measly portion of steamed mushrooms and a few chunks of grilled zucchini piled over a ruddy pool of romesco-tasting sauce.  There were some dense little blue cornmeal orbs that had potential, but didn't pan out to be much more than gritty balls of compacted polenta... albeit in a fetching shade of greyish-blue.  It would've gotten a little more had it clocked in around $10, but for the price of an entree, neither the size nor the flavor presented any justification whatsoever.  Here, I might've solicited a little cheese, just for the heartiness I inferred from barbeque.  Instead, it was all pleasant and light, but begged for depth and complexity... and an approximate 50% price decrease.  

All the dishes we tried were plated meticulously, in precise compositions that achieved beautiful visual balance.  But the ingredients were so disparate and segregated that it was hard to make the flavors meld in some of them.  The fluke with pork belly was a perfect example of this, whereas combining a morsel of pork with a pickly bit of charred onion,
 a sprig of purslane and a daub of creamy black bean puree created a delicious bite, but that balance so exquisitely achieved in the plating was less easily achieved on a d.i.y. basis.  Too, there could have been quite a bit more of the black bean in order to make the components coalesce.    At $29, it was a medium-size entree- certainly not generous, but adequate.  The duck carnitas, on the other hand, was ample.  Priced at $59, it easily serves two (the table next to us didn't order much else and even took leftovers).  It arrives in a steaming iron skillet, flaunting its crispy-charred skin over a hefty leg and breast- a full half-duck per diner.   Mild shredded fennel and radishes surround the bird, and a stack of earthy, pliant house-made corn tortillas accompany to wrap
up the juicy meat, which apparently takes four days to prepare from a custom blend of blue, purple, yellow and white Mexican corn .  If the quantity of this dish wasn't enough to warrant the price in your mind alone, the effort invested in its creation might tip the scales as further justification.

And then the much-anticipated climax- that dessert I had been reading so very much about (drum roll, please).  And yes, it was that good, really.  A study in white upon arrival, the feathery-light, melt-in-your-mouth meringue broke into a creamy, corny whipped cream mousse to reveal the earthy humility of charred, pulverized husk it was made from.  The unique grey-blue color contrasted gently with the pale yellow mousse, and the subtle perfume of summer corn whispered of a summer which still hasn't quite arrived.  But this dessert transcends the season: my only wish (and I'm not much on dots and squiggles) was that it might have included a tart component to offset the creamy sweetness.  We attempted to outsource this with a scoop of dragon fruit-mezcal sorbet, forgetting that the fruity, supermarket renditions of this flavor are even remotely indicative of the true essence of dragon fruit.  Instead, its muted, almost creamy flavor offered more of the same, with a slight boozy touch (which was not unappreciated).  I suppose I was envisioning the kick of raspberry... a simple raspberry sorbet would've added a nice tangy kick.  Cosme isn't a flawless as I might have hoped, and at these price points I feel like it might have a couple of points to rethink.  But it seems the Chef is probably back at Pujol, having garnered a solid three stars from the Times, and a following frantic enough to require ample forethought to procure a reservation.  But if you have the wherewithal, Cosme is most definitely a memorable experience, although I'm not sure whether it more for the bragging rights than of the dinner itself.

        35 E 21st Street    
 tel. 212.913.9659