Arguably the best Mexican chef in the world–and without a doubt one of the most influential–Enrique Olvera’s first foray outside of his native country has been perpetually booked since opening eleven months ago. Though snubbed in the most recent Michelin Guide, Cosme continues to draw rave reviews with cuisine that mingles Latin tradition with seasonal, local ingredients: a philosophy that has landed Olvera’s flagship Mexico City restaurant Pujol the honor of sixteenth best restaurant in the world. The chef certainly doesn’t try to be a crowd-pleaser. A dish of thinly sliced beef tongue gets its texture from crispy black ants, and the guacamole–if anyone is brave enough to order it–is relegated to the bottom corner of the menu, separate from the other dishes. Despite this, Olvera has resolved to keep one wildly popular creation on Cosme’s menu: the duck carnitas.
A whole Rohan duck–a mix between Mallard and Peking–is cured in salt for three days before being given a quick, intense sear to develop a crackling, golden brown skin. The bird is removed from the pan, and the drippings are used to sauté a mix of onions, garlic, tomato, ancho chili, orange, milk, and–in true Mexico City tradition–Coke. The mixture is poured over the duck and left to cook overnight in a hotel pan until tender and ready to be deboned.
The two breasts are removed from the bird and, upon service, slowly warmed and crisped one last time under the broiler. The dish arrives in a cast iron skillet topped with white onion, cilantro, radish, and a squeeze of fresh lime. The accompaniments are just as simple: heirloom single-origin corn tortillas, salsa verde, and salsa de árbol. Though it’s almost a shame to do it, the breasts absolutely burst apart with the faintest touch of the fork. The skin crunches with the melody of a bag of potato chips as the meat floods the bottom of the pan with juices and oozing, melted fat.
If you have the patience to fully construct a taco for your first bite rather than plunging into the duck itself, I applaud you. However, its fabulous texture aside, the meat has a depth of flavor from the aforementioned Coca-Cola tinged marinade that demands it be enjoyed by itself in good measure. The sweetness of the soda’s cane sugar and the acidity of the orange and tomato subdue the more savory chili, garlic, and onion elements. With the milk mellowing it all out, the bird has an unmatched, finger-licking, savory allure.
When you finally reach for the tortillas, they’ll be as soft and as warm as if they came from a grandma’s kitchen. Their slight chew, equally, helps the more lavish textures of the meat and skin distinguish themselves even more. The salsa verde has a pleasant and mild tang from the tomatoes and serrano peppers that cleanses the palate from the onslaught of duck fat. While the salsa de árbol undoubtedly kicks the heat up even more, it stops just a touch before being too spicy. The accompaniments, like the bird itself, revel in the elegance of simplicity and unfaltering execution.
At a time when many French restaurants in NYC are charging over $30 for a singular duck breast, $59 for Olvera’s carnitas feast is a bargain. The chef has handled the pressure and hype of an incessantly busy hotspot with a disarming reverence for what’s good and what’s familiar. Duck might not be in the usual Mexican playbook, but Olvera asserts his cuisine’s ability to both embrace luxurious ingredients and apply traditional techniques to them. He serves up carnitas that are undoubtedly fine dining but irrevocably steeped in the soul and heart of his country’s culture. It’s a dish he’s very smart to keep on his menu and one that will–like Daniel Humm’s roast chicken–become a cornerstone of NYC’s dining scene.
Date Visited: 9/29/15