Cafe Reviews

When Cuisines Collide

Most modern art is wholly unintelligible unless you are privy to the critical theory behind the work. So argues Tom Wolfe in a wry essay on an abstract expressionist painting called The Painted Word. Explanations are so essential to the appreciation of this type of art, writes Wolfe, that art patrons might be better served if galleries reversed the normal order of things and mounted huge canvas-size critical analyses alongside postcard-size paintings.

It is impossible to avoid such a reflection when considering KousKooz, an ambitious new restaurant enterprise that clearly sees itself as something more than an attractive place to gather and dine. KousKooz is--using a word liberally laced throughout its press kit--a "concept." In fact, the press kit is a concept in itself: So thick, so pedantic and so full of self-masturbatory history that I do not know whether to appear at this restaurant for a meal, a massage or a friggin' midterm.

The key part of the "concept" is something the restaurant calls Ameriterranean cuisine. I'm going to try to knock off about twenty pages of the KousKooz press material and get this down to one sentence here. Ameriterranean cuisine is what results when traditional Mediterranean ingredients and dishes, especially those of North Africa and the Middle East, are cooked in a manner acceptable to Americans willing to shell out up to $50 apiece for dinner. Great. Let's eat.

First though, and I know you are not expecting to read this considering the rough opening tone of this review, let me go on record as saying that I am deeply impressed by this restaurant and sincerely hope it thrives. I am impressed because its food is imaginative and great tasting, and because its ambiance is as attractive, as finely integrated and as every bit full of energy as those enterprises catering to a similar sense of chic in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. In fact, everything about KousKooz successfully comes off as "leading edge," a rare achievement for perennially five-years-behind Phoenix. My real concern is that the KousKooz ownership team might easily be lured into trading a sincere service perspective for the fame of hip conceptual complexity. I am not saying that a menu must be based on the taste of burgers, but this is still Phoenix and one dares not lose sight of the taste of the burghers. My admonition to KousKooz management is to keep asking the question: "What if we gave a great restaurant and nobody came?"

It's hard to start in on specifics, but let's begin where I do with a trip to the bathroom. This may be the best-smelling men's room I've ever visited, thanks to general cleanliness and a touch of spicy potpourri, and I cannot too strongly commend the attention to this detail. My guest is equally enthusiastic about the ladies' room, which delights her with a display of fresh flowers on the vanity and Nat King Cole on the piped-in tape.

As we await service, our perusal of the dining room reveals an environment of many conspicuous and subtle treasures. A windowed working kitchen dominates one wall of the dining room, a thoughtful way to embrace and display the major activity of the restaurant without impinging on the comfort of guests. The dining room itself is a sprawling collection of mood stations, ranging from semi-intimate where the room tapers toward the rear, to semi-exhibitionistic where some novel mid-room high-back banquettes dominate the decor, to semicasual where seating flows out onto an outdoor patio by a courtyard pool. What most appeals amidst the abundant usage of contemporary decoration, commissioned neon art and smoked mirrors is the level of design restraint and refinement. The restaurant manages to keep its "guard" up before too much "avant." As a result, the total effect is classy rather than clashy.

I might easily go on for several additional paragraphs about the custom-designed service-staff uniforms, the lovely and unique table-top appointments and a slew of in-the-works dining features, including a gazebo-cum-tapas bar and a wine cellar-cum-formal function room, but it's already far past the point that the writer should be serving up some food impressions.

Since we're all hungry for details, I'm just going to overlook the conceptual where I can. For example, I won't worry about the fact that the restaurant calls its bread foccacia, even though I've a good deal of experience with this hearth-baked product and have never seen anything like the KousKooz version. I'm just going to let it satisfy me that this herb-rich loaf is entirely exquisite, especially when dipped in the garlic and sesame seed-laced extra virgin olive oil that is served alongside.

Just how talented this culinary staff is becomes immediately apparent with our first appetizer, Baked Goat Cheese. As pretty as the proverbial picture, this florid presentation of melted cheese, broth-simmered black beans, sauteed tomato-mint salsa, fresh lemon peel and hot-red-pepper strips, all bordered by toasted pita chips, is so stylish that it's almost intimidating. One bite rapidly dispels any notion that this is a look-but-don't-taste temptation, however, as the combination of flavors and textures blooms magnificently in the mouth.

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Steven Weiss