Food Review: Cous Cous 

This almost exotic eatery is more subtle than it needs to be.

click to enlarge Fried cauliflower at Cous Cous is among the small plates on a new, sharable menu. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Fried cauliflower at Cous Cous is among the small plates on a new, sharable menu.

It may no longer be the latest thing, but Cous Cous is a sexy place. Found on the first floor of the Chesterfield Apartments on Virginia Commonwealth University's campus, the restaurant's red and black décor is handsome and exotic. Gold and red curtains soften the windows. The large bar and the curvy benches give substance and a casual, comfortable vibe to the cavernous dining room. Service is efficient, informative and attentive without being overbearing, making Cous Cous a longtime favorite for students and Fan dwellers.

To mark its sixth anniversary, Cous Cous has rolled out a new menu that chef Jacob Goff has worked on since donning the top toque in April. Several classics remain, but the menu now offers more small plates for sharing. Lunch has more bocadillos, or sandwiches. The bar list is equally extensive and the drink choices ample, as wide-ranging as Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hardywood Park beers, dark and stormy and Marrakesh mule cocktails, albarino and malbec wines, and Coke and cucumber lemonade drinks.

Cous cous, the semolina dish, is a staple in North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Libya. But the menu at Cous Cous restaurant hails from the Mediterranean region. Greek, Spanish and Moroccan dishes are fused with American touches, and the results are all over the map.

Green fields of fungi ($6.50) is a standout salad. While the greens are dressed in an unremarkable pepper dressing, the mushrooms are perfectly caramelized and judiciously salted to savory. Gorgonzola enhances the mushrooms' flavor. I'm happy to see pignoli, Italian pine nuts, being used rather than the common but bitter Chinese pine nuts, although a little toasting would give the nuts richer flavor.

The harira soup ($4/$5.95), a Moroccan classic of hearty tomato, lamb and lentils, disappointingly tastes like a weak minestrone devoid of the braised lamb and wild rice promised on the menu. To compensate, we order the lamb tagine ($10.95). Presented in an adorable small earthenware bowl, the braised lamb is tender and flavorful. Strips of onions, bell peppers and diced tomatoes round out the dish, though I wish the Moroccan spices weren't so faint.

In a place called Cous Cous, I'm compelled to order the namesake. Among the three versions, we settle on the Moroccan ($3), advertising chopped vegetables seasoned with Moroccan spices. Alas, no vegetables are visible beyond the requisite onions and diced peppers necessary to produce a semiflavorful broth to cook the cous cous. For $3, I expect turmeric to be used to color the cous cous yellow, so the absence of saffron is fine. But when the menu says Moroccan spices, I want to taste more seasonings than salt and pepper. The Mediterranean cous cous that comes with the lamb tagine suffers from the same predicament, but the briny feta and kalamata olives make its blandness less noticeable.

Other dishes hold more promise. Eggplant roulade ($5.95), stuffed with creamy ricotta and feta, contrasts nicely with still-crunchy sautéed onions and peppers. Dried cherries seem to replace the promised apricots, but along with currants, the fruit accents the dish beautifully. The tomato sauce is light with enough tang and the pine nuts are nice — although, again, I'm a believer in toasting nuts to bring out their flavor.

Wilted spinach ($6.50) with pine nuts, apples and currants is tasty. Fried cauliflower ($5.95) atop julienned veggies, pistachios, dried cherries and gorgonzola mousse is beautiful and delicious, even if the preserved lemon vinaigrette is too subtle and the excessive dried cherries too sweet.

I'm smitten by the fried manchego tots ($7.95). For those of you who devour Sticky Rice's bucket of tots, you must order these cheesy ones. Don't expect a bucket, but six pieces are plenty for such rich morsels. Crunchy panko coating reveals melted, tangy cheese, and the accompanying honey and fig jam are just right with the piquant sheep's milk cheese.

For dessert, we share the panna cotta ($6). The custard is firm, not soft and quivering. It stands up to the pecan crunch and sweet, tangy, currant-strawberry-balsamic compote, making a nice treat to end dinner.

Cous Cous doesn't intend to be an authentic Moroccan restaurant, as is evident from the eclectic menu, but it is Moroccan at heart. Most of the dishes already have good foundations, but some lack determination. An extra inch of ginger, a stick of cinnamon, a few cloves or a handful of mint will place Cous Cous firmly in Mediterranean territory. S

Cous Cous
900 W. Franklin St.
Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.- 2 a.m.

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