Bistro, trattoria, grill. No matter what the nationality, the idea is the same: Convince customers that dining out needn't be so theatrical, so expensive. "It's an eating thing," as George Bush might say. "Fork, knife, meat, potatoes. Food is fuel. Spending lots of money . . . wouldn't be prudent at this juncture." Locally, KousKooz owners Larry Cohn and Eddie Matney were among the first to downtrend. (Downgrade just doesn't have a nice connotation, does it?) After introducing a menu change in August, they decided, a month later, to commit every public-relations person's nightmare. They changed the name of their restaurant from KousKooz to Eddie's Grill.
The concept? As the plebeian name implies, Cohn and Matney's plan was to simplify. Abandon "Ameriterranean" in favor of "American cuisine with a homestyle flair." Become less trendy and more basic. Well, as basic as a dramatic, taste-oriented chef like Eddie Matney can become.
My initial visit to Eddie's Grill takes place at the time of the changeover. Frankly, I'm not overwhelmed. While the appetizer of baked goat cheese with black beans and salsa has a triad of enticing tastes, it is difficult to eat. Black beans spill everywhere. Homemade potato chips with onion dip and barbecue sauce are easier to manage, but not as mind-blowing as anticipated.
My opinion on our entrees is equally split. I like the grilled sirloin encased in mashed potatoes and cheese. It's homey, hearty and reminiscent of my sister's shepherd's pie. But I'm terribly disappointed by the linguini with grilled vegetables. On the night we visit, this lovely-sounding pasta dish emerges from the kitchen pretossed and smothered in a red sauce overpowered by sun-dried tomatoes.
Factor in an indifferent, too-cool-for-this-world waiter and a twenty-minute wait for the check, and yes, you could say I am less than enthusiastic about returning. But return I do, three months later. And, happily, I am won over.
On my second visit, Goat, an out-of-town visitor and I are seated at a table across from rock-music veteran Alice Cooper and his family. Goat and I worry that Mr. Cooper will think we are following him. A couple of months ago, we sat near him at Tapas-Papa-Frita. He gives Goat a piercing look--"This guy again?"--then continues his dinner conversation about a campaign to prevent teen suicide.
Our out-of-town visitor, who has been known to hum "Only Women," is impressed by this rock-star sighting. Goat, who owned every album by the original Alice Cooper band, confides, "There he sits, ten feet away, and he doesn't know that twenty years ago he was a god to me." Thank goodness.
The physical changes in the room are subtle. You can now see through a tinted window into the kitchen. The waitstaff is casually dressed in jeans and voluminous shirts--most of which are dark green. But the neon art remains, and so, as a result, does the not-unpleasant sensation of big-city slickness.
As our visitor has a plane to catch, we are dining early. The restaurant, aside from Mr. Cooper and his family, is mostly empty. By the time we leave, circa eight o'clock, the restaurant has filled. Eddie's regular clientele, clad in expensive casual clothes, glitters with life. Our waitress is a charming young woman who speaks knowledgeably about the menu. She is sincere, warm and not overbearing. She plays a key role in my overall favorable impression this second time around.
We start with two appetizers and soup. The soup is French onion capped with baked cheese. "I hear you guys provide little scissors with the soup," I say to our waitress as we order. "I'm glad you reminded me," she giggles. "Usually, I forget to bring them out."
Actually, the blue plastic Crayola scissors help only marginally in managing the mass of molten cheese and soup-soaked bread. Eddie's version uses slivers of Bermuda onion in a rosemary-tinged broth, but show me the person who can eat this soup with any kind of decorum. I wouldn't order it on a first date or important business luncheon.
As for our two appetizers, the grilled chicken relleno is wonderful. It tastes of black beans, cilantro, cheese and grilled chicken. I could eat several in one sitting, but Goat and I let our spice-starved Eastern visitor eat the lion's share.
Fried sourdough calamari are overwhelmed by the strongly flavored batter. It's hard to taste the calamari. The accompanying red-pepper mayo has a nice kick to it. We could have used more.
Live music wafts from the bar area to our table. "I left my heart . . . ," croons singer Chuck Mathews. Goat, a secret Tony Bennett fan, taps his foot. At the next table, the Cooper clan readies itself for departure. In response to pleas for dessert, Alice reminds his young son that they will stop for frozen yogurt on the way home. What a dad!