A little night music
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Having spent many months too many months watching presidential aspirants address television cameras from cavernous halls, I stepped into Cossu recently and found it oddly familiar. The restaurant is cavernous, and it even has a spotlit stage, although not for presidential candidates or other bloviating politicos but live musical acts. It also, until recently, was called Pasha.
The place has changed hands and changed chefs, according to one of our servers, and it's even (we were reassured) been redecorated. It didn't look much different to me, I must say: the lighting tends toward nightclub dimness; the walls, flooring, and tented ceiling are all a red-burgundy shade like being inside a huge box of red wine and, in a slight ergonomic crisis, the square tables are still awkwardly low, with awkwardly low ottomans and banquettes to sit on. The tables are also still set with brass inlays that say "Pasha." I didn't particularly care for Pasha, so I wasn't particularly thrilled to see a recurrence of the name. On the other hand, it's hard to read table inlays in dim light. So, a wash there.
The big change has been in the kitchen, where executive chef Hijam Senhaji turns out a "Moroccan fusion" menu. As one of our servers told us, the idea is (if I might be allowed a moment of Emerilspeak) to kick it up a notch. The result is mostly impressive; if you've liked the food at Saha, Medjool, or the original Baraka, you'll likely like the food here. Of course there are traditional tagine and couscous dishes, but the cooking can soar well beyond the old boundaries. It can also catch the occasional wing in power lines.
The best dishes have at least one foot firmly planted on the soil of tradition. The bastilla, for instance a packet of phyllo pastry filled with something savory, like a giant flaky raviolo is a staple in Moroccan cooking (and, under various other names, throughout the Mediterranean). Cossu's Essaouira version ($14) is filled with a mix of shrimp and calamari in a chermoula paste a fragrant blend of garlic, herbs, lemon juice, olive oil, cumin, coriander, and (guessing by the color) some saffron. The bastilla reaches the table looking like a big fat wallet and isn't sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. Some might account this omission a small mercy.
Another traditional Moroccan preparation is the salad of shredded spinach called bakoula ($8). It's not exactly a beauty queen; in fact it looks like one of those clumps of wet grass you sometimes have to pull from the lawn mower, if you happen to have mowed a damp lawn. But it's punctuated with slivers of green olive and imbued with the haunting, sour-salty flavor of preserved lemons. Even served cold, it casts a spell.
While you wait for the next treat to appear, you gnaw on your warm sesame-seed bun and nibble at your plate of green and black olives in their spicy marinade. (A word to the wise: most of the olives are pitted, but not all.) Maybe you've opted for the French fries ($6) as a kind of intermezzo; they're wonderfully slender and tender-crisp, but they offer no discernable hint of Moroccan (or indeed any) fusion.
The kitchen saves the bulk of its innovative effects for the big dishes. Slices of Muscovy duck breast ($26) don't, to me, suggest north Africa in the least, but the meat is expertly roasted to order (we asked for rare and got it rare lovely reddish-pink flaps, with plenty of juice), and it's sauced with a viscous, honey-like essence of apricot and cinnamon. As someone who is wary of the usual pairings made between fruit and flesh, sweet and savory (pork with apples or cherries comes instantly to mind), I found this combination to be winsome and, in my experience, unique.
Well, semi-unique, since the sauce accompanying the black and white tuna ($24), also featured a cunning deployment of cinnamon, a supple and sublime spice we occidentals tend to underuse. Here the cinnamon was added to a tomato coulis, with the result being a distant relative of barbecue sauce. The fish itself, meanwhile, was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, seared to order, and presented on a bed of saffron rice.
So far, so good with these fusion dishes. The kitchen even served the duck with a pine-nut-and-parsley couscous, to distinguish it from the saffron rice. But both plates were piled high on one side with the same, not particularly interesting, medley of sautéed vegetables, mostly green and yellow summer squash, carrot tabs, and shreds of red cabbage. Of course these are all estimable and colorful foodstuffs; they are good for us and even, to a degree, seasonal. But they also suggest a kind of mass production that's not quite consistent with the high ambition of turning out distinctive food, plate by plate. It's especially jarring when the stars of each plate are so distinctive; it's as if cheap tires have been fitted to a Lamborghini.
Is this disjunction a lingering ghost of Pasha? We attempted an exorcism by inquiring about dessert but were told our choices were limited to baklava and coffee. I like baklava well enough, but because it's suffered overexposure on these hither shores like tiramisù and drifted in the direction of cliché, I almost never order it and didn't here. Our knowledgeable and radiant server quietly supported us in this choice. She and her troupe, in fact, were altogether cosseting. *
COSSU RESTAURANT, BAR, AND LOUNGE
Tues.Sun., 6 p.m. to closing
1516 Broadway, SF