Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cosi Cucina Italian Grill

1975 NW 86th Street
Clive IA 50325
Lunch and Dinner, daily

Both “A” and “D” have been regular customers of Cosi Cucina for a number of years, and this is a difficult review to write because it is one that must comment on the dining experience and quality over time, rather than a single experience fixed on a single visit. In fact, this review is so important to us, that “A” and “D” will each write a separate review rather than their usual combined profile.

“A’s” Review

Reviewing Cosi Cucina is a bittersweet proposition. There is still so much to like about the place such as the always present banks of gladiola in the windows and fresh flowers on the table. Lighting in the room is subtle and very appropriate if you are looking for a spot that evokes romance. The service at the restaurant is done by seasoned professionals who make you feel like you are almost family. The welcome is warm, sincere and starts off your dining adventure on a very pleasant note. They know the specials of the day and let you know what they are and the price before you get too far into the menu.

“A” has eaten at Cosi for many years for both lunch and dinner engagements. Until recently, each trip has been good to exceptional. The last two or three trips, however, have left “A” feeling like the chef is either resting on his laurels or is not inspired to deliver the kind of cuisine formerly anticipated and enjoyed at Cosi Cucina. At both lunch and dinner, Cosi’s was always packed with diners who were willing to wait over an hour for a table. On recent visits, there has been no wait for a table.

The most recent outing brought “A” the chef’s special for the evening, Steak de Burgo served with potatoes Dauphanoise and green beans, according to our waiter, and a Caesar salad. Cosi has always been famous for their triangle shaped dinner rolls served with a splash of infused olive oil. They still get high marks however it seems they used to be a little more dense and chewy and served a little warmer. The Caesar salad is really a sad concoction of limp romaine tossed with a creamy style dressing that lacks the bite of garlic or anchovy one expects from this dish. On one outing, the anchovies served on “D’s” Caesar salad were considerably past their prime and were definitely candidates for the kitchen disposal.

The Steak de Burgo was cooked to the desired medium rare requested, however the sauce had none of the characteristics of good de Burgo. The sauce was watery and totally lacking the snap and luster of the garlic and olive oil or butter that one expects from Steak de Burgo. Perhaps there was a miscommunication between the kitchen and the wait staff but the “potatoes Dauphinoise” were really a very poor execution of Dutchess potatoes. Potatoes Dauphinoise are sliced and scalloped, usually with Gruyere cheese. Dutchess potatoes are mashed with cream and garlic, piped onto a plate and browned. The mound on “A’s” plate was not artfully piped and the potatoes and had been overly baked until they were dry and flavorless. Cooking green beans to the perfect texture is also something that should be expected at a restaurant of Cosi Cucina’s reputation and history but alas, “A’s” were undercooked and cold.

“D” ordered a Caesar salad and the penne with sausage sauce, Cosi’s signature pasta named Ziti Cucina. “D”s comments about the Caesar echoed “A’s” findings. The penne pasta tasted as though it had been cooked for quite a while, left to sit on a prep table and reheated prior to being sauced and served. It tasted doughy and overcooked. The menu item boasted Graziano sausage in the sauce however its quantity was negligible. On a previous Sunday lunch outing, “D” ordered the salmon in cucumber sauce. The salmon was not as fresh as it should have been and the plate was awash in a flavorless, milky fluid floating a sea of cucumbers. Pale fish served on a white plate with white sauce does not an interesting entrée make.

We don’t know whether some of the luster from the kitchen has disappeared due to a decreased number of diners. The plethora of new eating establishments on Des Moines west side and Cosi Cucina’s weekly discount coupon hype and increased hours indicate they are feeling the pinch. We will probably continue to review it periodically to see if Cosi Cucina returns to the glorious days of its beginning with inspired food, beautifully prepared and served. What they are churning out these days is a disservice to its fans and certainly to a talented and eager wait staff.

“D’s” Review

Cosi Cucina is entering the 13th year since its opening by chef and owner/co-owner Doug Smith. In 1993, Smith was doing highly innovative things like featuring organic ingredients, using unknown-to-Des Moines ingredients such as ramps, and introducing Cleverly Farms’ artisanal salad greens. The cuisine style was an exciting ‘Cal-Ital’ and Chef Smith quickly captured the interest and loyalty of Des Moines diners, winning praise for both his dishes and the romantic nature of the restaurant’s ambience. The restaurant has a wood-fired oven in the middle of the dining room and was among the first locally, perhaps even in the Midwest, to serve the interesting west coast style pizza that has since swept the country. Good wines, a unique and exceptionally intimate full-service bar, a well-trained wait staff, and high-quality dishes using the best ingredients were the hallmark of Cosi Cucina.
“A” and “D” have observed, since about 2003, changes in some of the hallmark expectations of dinner at Cosi Cucina. The opening of chains such as Biaggi’s, Bravo!, Granite City, and other large-format restaurants has created competition for share of the diners’ wallets and, seemingly, has put pressure on Cosi Cucina for customer loyalty. What we believe we are observing is the timeless tale of the intrigue of the ‘new’ versus the ‘old,’ especially when the old restaurant doesn’t update and allows itself to become caught in a cost-cutting spiral in an attempt to remain competitive.
On three dinner experiences, we have been served dishes that are not up to the standards that were the hallmark of the recent past. On one lunch experience, the quality and preparation was actually disappointing. Service has remained excellent; on every visit, we have been made to feel welcome and appreciated. But, something is amiss with the quality of the food.
We dined on a Wednesday evening, about 6 p.m. Again made to feel welcome, we were seated and Steve, a long-time waiter with excellent skills, immediately began his attentive, knowledgeable and professional service. “A” had a glass of a Steve-recommended St. Supery cabernet; “D” had a favorite Peppi sangiovese. Both were served in elegant, over-sized stems that amplified the aromas of the wines and the wine service. The cab was $10 a glass; the sangiovese, $6.
Peppi is an interesting and inexpensive sangiovese (available at about $7 at J.T’s Wine and Spirits on E.P. True at 50th Street in West Des Moines) and is one of the first California wineries to totally adopt screw-caps over the traditional cork. “D” applauds this as at least ten percent of all bottles using corks opened over the past few years have been corked and have had significant levels of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) in the wine. Corked wine containing TCA has a characteristic odor, sometimes described as resembling a moldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement, but in every instance something other than what is desired in the wine experience. Cork taint destroys the wine's aromas, and even a very lightly tainted wine is completely undrinkable (although harmless). “D” has never experienced TCA with screw caps and is a firm believer in this newest wine bottling technology. But, back to Cosi Cucina.
Bread was brought to the table, the signature restaurant-created rustic triangle rolls with peppered olive oil dip. These are served from a large wicker basket; in years past, they were served warmed from the oven. The olive oil on the table is unfiltered, infused with herbs, buttery and flavorful. Steve used the bread service time to thoroughly explain the evening’s featured dishes which he does in an interesting way that shows genuine understanding and interest and not just ‘The Script of the Day.’ “A and “D” both chose the calamari with aoli sauce as a shared appetizer and creamy Caesar salads as starters. Steve said he would check on entree selections after the salad course, a nice touch and one that encourages relaxed dining.
The calamari is breaded and lightly fried. The strips are flat and cut into ½ inch thick slices. We may be wrong, but the squid tastes and feels like a processed product, perhaps a calamari-like prepared frozen product, similar to ersatz-crab. This was “D’s” third attempt at this appetizer in three years and it is the same dish. Calamari has little distinctive taste to begin with, but the preparation should instill several layers of flavor to be accented by the aoli dipping sauce. The breading on this dish is unremarkable, actually a bit soggy and lifeless. The lobster ravioli, scallops or portabella mushrooms may be better appetizer alternatives.
The Caesar salad is an enigma. We have a chef who pioneers Cleverly Farms greens, yet the romaine lettuce in the Caesar is limp, warm, uncrisp and uncool. This is the third Caesar with the same shortcomings, so this is a problem not an oversight. The cream dressing is so heavy on the romaine as to totally overpower any other flavors that might be present, such as garlic and anchovy. The pine nut salad or Gruyere salad are better choices and tend to please consistently.
Post-salad, the entrees were ordered. “A” chose the featured dish, Steak de Burgo and “D” chose the house signature pasta dish, Ziti Cucina, a penne and blush sauce with Graziano sausage. A second glass of the St. Supery and the Peppi accompanied the entrée.
The Steak de Burgo is well-described in “A’s” review accompanying this one. The Ziti Cucina was, frankly, surprising. The pasta was overly glutenous, an indication of pre- and over-cooking. How can this occur in a good Italian restaurant? A number of clumps of three to six penne clinging tenaciously to each other were found in the dish, an unheard of, basic, pasta no-no. The blush sauce is flavorful and excellent, but the always delicious Graziano sausage was a mere hint in quantity, not a hearty and plentiful addition. The smoked chicken and pasta may be a better choice. On other visits, “D” has had the excellent pork Marsala and was pleased; the 8 oz. Iowa-raised ostrich was interesting but overdone. It is worth trying if it can be moisturized and served medium. The wood-fired oven pizza is very good and is always a top choice here.
Cosi Cucina can do better. It must do better. It has a distinguished history of doing better and loyal patrons who want it to do better. If I were to suppose reasons for the shortfall in quality of the dishes, it would be inexperienced kitchen staff. Certainly, not the chef, but the line assistants. What is happening seems to be a lack of attention to excellence and a lack of attention to excellent ingredients; that is unfortunate. The dinner was $100 with a generous gratuity for excellent service, but the dinner was not a $100 value, not even a $70 value with these disappointments.

Rating: 2 Maybe
Quality: Fair
Value: Fair
Recommended: Provisionally
Alternatives: Tursi’s Latin King, Bravo! Cucina, even Biaggi’s


Blogger Doug said...

I received this critique in the mail today after it was forwarded to me from Cosi Cucina. I had a wonderful time with awesome people in my ten years at Cosi. However, from reading the critique it was written as if I were still involved. I sold my half of the business in 2003. I am not sure if this is important to you but it is to me. Thank You.


Doug Smith

3:09 PM  
Blogger Campbell & Lewis said...

Sorry, we were not aware of the change in ownership. Perhaps that explains what we have experienced since 2003. It is important to us and we would love to know where we can experience your talent once again.

1:07 PM  
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