The shade of paint on the walls reminds me of the blueberry sorbet I used to order from the local ice cream store as a kid. It's a color that makes you hungry.
The expressive interior of Kosmos (Greek for "beautiful thing," appropriately) is the result of the vision and sweat of its three owners, brothers Brendan Crotty, Kevin Crotty and John Heath. The restaurant opened last October after a seven-month renovation. If you're a "Trading Spaces" junkie, check out the restaurant's website, which offers a pictorial tour of the construction process. I'm told the stairs in the back will soon lead down to a spacious garden, surrounded by a bamboo fence, for outdoor dining.
Naturally, one anticipates that the food will mirror the gracious space. My first visit, during lunch, does not let me down. With placid sunshine sifting through the front and back windows, we nibble on a red leaf lettuce salad with hearts of palm, juicy pieces of sweet peppers and ripe triangles of avocado. The salad is dressed in a spry Caesar vinaigrette that just coats the greens. Another salad of curried rice with chicken is standard lunch fare, but the rice still has texture and the curry exudes just the right amount of tang.
A gumbo of duck and wild mushroom has more kinship to to boeuf bourguignon: It's lacking a true gumbo's gutsy roux, though it's still a fine bowl of stew. A warm roast beef sandwich with blue cheese and horseradish is warm and zingy, perfect with some good potato chips next to it. I think chefs curse themselves when they give a dish a name like "Gotta-have-it meatball sandwich." The meatballs have little seasoning and the portions of cheese and sauce are chintzy. Trust me, you don't gotta. (Want a meatball sandwich that'll rock your world? Go to Star Provisions.)
Our mostly enjoyable lunch, however, did not prepare me for the disappointments of dinner. The offerings are generous and certainly priced attractively, but they mostly lack imagination or careful execution, or both. "Fingerlings" of red snapper with banana salsa, for example, sounds plucky. But the batter of the snapper strips is woefully under-seasoned, and the salsa has no cohesion: It's an unappealing pile of diced peppers and bananas.
Other dishes that sound promising fall with an equally dull thud. Jerk chicken with papaya salsa, collards and coconut rice, in the hands of the right chef, could be a signature plate that locals would clamor for weekly. Instead, there are two pieces of chicken with nice grill marks but soggy skin and a wimpy jerk rub. The papaya salsa is a bit better than its banana counterpart, but it needs more salt and more citrus. The rice has barely a hint of coconut. The collards? So bland. The poor things at least need a jolt of vinegar.
Seared, rare tuna comes drizzled with blueberry-cream sauce. It's fetching to behold, but -- surprise, surprise -- lacks flavor. Somebody in the kitchen needs a lesson in salting food. And what's with the accompaniments? Three small pieces of toast and a wad of field greens? I mean, sheesh. It's a challenge to dream up two more insipid pairings.
Chicken with mole sauce shows signs of life. The sauce has that dusky sweetness that makes mole so intriguing, and tomatillo sauce and feta cheese imbue the rice with much-needed pep. And wow, the steamed mussels actually wake me up. The coconut broth percolates with the complexity of Thai red curry.
But then we try a hot artichoke bruschetta. I should have known better with this one. It's basically hot artichoke dip on toasted bread. If you lived through the '80s and that's still your idea of a delightful start to a meal, have at it. It's not mine.
The food may be putting the servers to sleep. They are an aggressively mellow bunch with little to say about what they're serving. The only time I can pull enthusiastic responses out of them are when I inquire about the mussels and the hanger steak. And the steak deserves it: unusually thick slices in a classic, correct red wine-shallot reduction with crunchy roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach that's been cooked to suppleness while still retaining its verdant essence. Ah, more like this, please.
Actually, one server also brightens when asked about the sauteed strawberries in a red wine-pepper sauce, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's the house dessert, and it sounds like a kicky idea. Sadly, the night I try it, the strawberries taste fermented. Harrumph. It could have been an off night, though strawberries are way out of season locally. Revolving the fruit seasonally -- blood oranges in the winter, peaches in the summer -- would perhaps help produce a fresher, more memorable result.
Here's the thing: This place needs some passionate cooks who are willing to dream and take risks on the plate. I look at the menu and eat the food and, frankly, I'm bored. I don't feel the same kind of energy that obviously went into the space. For a neighborhood restaurant to succeed these days, it needs to first draw its customers in with an appealing room, then keep them coming back for the grub. Kosmos is certainly a looker. For now, I'll just come back to have a drink at the bar. But I'll be keeping a hopeful eye out for sassier eats from the kitchen.
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