If the definition of an enigma is a mysterious or puzzling riddle, chef Simon Kim has whipped the term up to a whole new frenzy at Cote, his dynamo of a Flatiron grill house. While it might be much more of a Korean barbecue than a regular steakhouse, the one thing this recently crowned Michelin hotspot is super-dooper serious about – is meat.
The mysteriously dark and borderline somber interior (thanks to the dark walls, concrete floors and granite table-tops) feels less like the place you’d find wood-handled serrated knives, paper napkins and sticky bottles of dark-red sauce, and more like the set of a tragic opera titled “The Temple of Contrasts”. It’s way too mellow for a fine dining experience, and yet way too serious for a steakhouse. When you stand up it feels expensive, but when you sit down at the rows of shared tables, it’s not. Let’s call it a hybrid. Just like their American Wagyu steak – which is a byproduct of a mixed marriage from a Japanese Wagyu father and an American Black Angus mother. Is it the best of both? Absolutely. We’re talking unparalleled mecca of meat in Manhattan here.
The wait staff are as delightful and helpful as kindergarten teachers, who just want you to enjoy yourselves as you wade your way through the 2-foot long laminated menu with built-in bovine anatomy lesson on the back. But no-one would dare upstage the real stars of the show who are all resting and aging quietly downstairs on a series of comfortable racks for about 2 to 20 weeks. Brief sightings are permitted via a window into their neon red chamber of patience as you pass by on your way to the sub-level lounge.
The perfect way to dive into this heady list of options is via the Chef’s Feast, which serves as a primer for various Korean sides, salads and accoutrements plus a dealer’s choice of 4 different ages and cuts of marbled prime for $45.We supplemented our order with a couple of appetizers, like the Korean Bacon – a wondrously crispy cumin and paprika rubbed, twice-smoked pork belly punctuated with pickled Jalapeno’s, and the hand-sliced (or rather – diced) top-round Steak Tartare flavored with chunks of pear and pickled mustard seeds. Uber-delectable in so many ways, even if the fluffy tendon crisps fell short in their duty of transporting every delicious scarlet morsel of flesh from plate to mouth. And from the Savory dish section we ordered something deep and delicious called Kimchi Wagyu Paella. A rather curious name given that it didn’t much taste of Kimchi, nor did the mini-morsels of Wagyu beef get any spotlight, and I’d hardly describe it as a paella either. But who cares? The “chili-fried rice with nori flakes and a soft poached egg thing” got crispier and crispier and tastier and tastier as it waited patiently in a sizzling cast-iron pan, while the waitress sprinkled a trio of salts onto 8 bite-sized dominoes of wet-aged Hangar steak before lowering them onto the table-top grill. Various wait staff rotated in and out to turn the meat to ensure that it delivered the house-recommended medium-rare doneness. Meanwhile in the foreground, side dishes materialized from out of the darkness and transformed the table into a carousel of colors and flavors. Pickled cauliflower with jalapeno’s. Scallion salad with a tart dressing. Red leaf lettuces to wrap around the meat. A nice and crispy Radish kimchi. A soft and salty Savoy cabbage kimchi. A single leaf of Sesame kimchi (which despite many attempts proved un-tearable and therefore un-shareable.) Spicy kimchi stew with pork belly and rice. A rather pale and shy Savory egg soufflé, and an ochre-colored, spicy, fermented soy bean paste called Ssamjang that could transform anything – even the rear-end of a Hyundai Elantra – into something delectable.
Despite our trepidation about making a culinary faux pas, we were assured that there were no rules. You can group the steak bites together with a chorus of kimchi and paste inside a lettuce leaf for extra backup, or you can force each bite into its own solo act. Either way, the heavenly meat succumbed without resistance for a moist mouthful of umami, with hints of sear and salt in perfect unison. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.Next on the grill was the aforementioned American Wagyu. No other way to describe it than utterly conversation-stoppingly sensational. And climbing yet another notch in tenderness – the 45-day aged Ribeye. No funky mushroomy flavors here. Just the purest, moistest, most salivatingly wonderful bite of beef ever. And finally, the popular Galbi Marinated Shortrib rounded out the quartet. Finger-thin striplets of tender meat still barely attached after bathing in a marvelously sweet and salty soy, apple, pear and mandarin juice all day. Sheer heaven. We were offered a staggering 145-day aged T-bone as the Chef’s special but heeded the warning that it can taste a little like blue-cheese on a good day. Eating a steak has never been an exercise in patience for me. Quite the opposite. But I do have to confess to a certain enjoyment as I watched each morsel slowly cook in front of me, and then thoughtfully masticated and savored each bite. But once the flavor serenade burst into my mouth, I would have given anything to gobble up every last bite in sight in under a minute.