Kosta's, Take Me Away

Voluptuous flavors create a sensuous dining experience worth repeating.

I fell in love with Kosta's over a lunchtime bowl of braised-veal stew.
Even now, memories of that first encounter linger on my tongue: the cubes of succulent meat, the savory roasted vegetables, the salty strands of grated Asiago cheese, and the trembling caress of the piquant brown gravy. Familiar, yet exotic; comforting, yet thrilling--the virile tastes and textures of that stew swept me off my feet.

Of course, even the most skillful lover can occasionally falter, and it is a rare ardor that can withstand repeated scrutiny. After a second visit, my love for Kosta's remains, but it is tempered with a serving of steely-eyed realism. I can now confess that not everything this restaurant does is perfect. But with all it does so well, who cares?

Settled on a street corner in trendy Tremont, Kosta's is fast approaching its first birthday. Despite its newness, word of mouth has been enthusiastic, and diners are already lining up to sample Chef Brandt Evans's mighty cuisine. The strapping young Culinary Institute of America-Hyde Park graduate readily admits that this critic isn't the first to accuse him of cooking sexy. "I tell people I hug taste buds for a living," he says amiably.

That aforementioned second visit to Kosta's came on a recent Saturday night, in the company of three eager companions. Our dining options were abundant: The fall/winter menu included thirteen appetizers and a dozen entrees, each one more delicious-sounding than the last, and our server recited several more daily specials. Finally, from among the complex preparations of veal, pork, duck, beef, salmon, lobster, and chicken, we made our choices.

My appetizer selection was a compelling example of Evans's culinary prowess. Four triangular, pierogi-like dumplings had been stuffed with a buttery blend of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, leeks, and Stilton cheese, then deep-fried until their edges turned crisp and golden. The dumplings and more mashed potatoes then were settled on a satiny pool of garlic-infused cream sauce and sprinkled with salty strips of tender prosciutto. Garnished with a pouf of fried onion threads, the dish was a dreamy blend of smooth and crisp textures, and creamy and sharp flavors.

We were also dazzled by a rich puff pastry filled with a blend of portobello, shiitake, and lobster mushrooms. The exotic fungi had been sauteed, then stroked with a savory veal reduction sauce before being nestled into the pastry along with marinated pearl onions, a tangle of watercress, and a drizzle of sweet Zinfandel-and-rosemary syrup.

Two large a la carte salads were simple and fresh. The Kosta Salad was a melange of field greens in a smooth balsamic vinaigrette, topped with crisp fried linguine in place of croutons. The other salad was a blend of buttery Bibb lettuce, toasted pecans, and sliced Asian pears, tossed in a more-sweet-than-sour dressing and garnished with thin fried egg noodles for crispness.

For my entree, I chose a marinated, chargrilled breast of Muscovy duck. The boneless meat was full-flavored but not at all strong, and done to a rosy medium rare. Tender and moist, it held its own, and then some, against the thick, fruity chutney of apples, parsnips, and dried apricots that topped it. The result was a mouth-filling symphony of big, bold tastes.

On the side, Evans offered a generous serving of mashed potatoes and two wonderful vegetable preparations: a scoop of buttery sauteed spaghetti squash and a portion of tangy sweet-and-sour braised red cabbage. Both were perfectly done and so flavorful that even a veggiephobe might have begged for more.

Our second entree, braised short ribs, was equally stirring. The meat on the two big bones was rich but not fatty, and it had both a deep sweetness and slightly piquant aftertaste from being cooked in brown ale. It was served on a bed of creamy polenta flavored with smoky Gouda cheese and garnished with curls of honey-glazed carrots, puffs of fried spinach, and strips of crisp fried parsnips. The flavors were bound together with a glistening tawny port-and-veal gloss. As we savored each forkful, we thought we felt the earth move.

Of course, more than a few seismic encounters on a single night are a lot to expect of any kitchen, no matter how potent. And, in fact, our next two entrees left us feeling a bit unsatisfied.

Our stew of winter vegetables showed great promise. An enormous portion of steamed and seared parsnips, turnips, carrots, and rutabagas was bedded down on a layer of toasted Israeli couscous, dotted with sharp chevre, and set adrift in a heady, garlic-scented vegetable stock. But the vegetables were still several minutes away from being tender. As a result, the dish was regrettably crunchy, and the flavor never blossomed to its fullest extent.

Our second disappointment was a notably dry, oven-roasted pork tenderloin. Like my duck, the meat was topped with a robust compote--this time of cubed Granny Smith apples, black currants, and pistachios, with a reduction of Ohio maple syrup and balsamic vinegar. But unlike the luscious fowl, the pork lacked the flavor to compete with the topping, and whatever taste it might have had was lost beneath the bold flavor of the fruit.

Fortunately, the same delicious mashed potatoes, braised cabbage, and spaghetti squash that we had enjoyed with the duck accompanied the pork tenderloin. The satisfying sides prevented us from wasting too much energy bemoaning the less-than-perfect meat.

Our dinners came with a basket of hot, crisp-crusted French bread from Cleveland's Stone Oven bakery and slabs of sweet butter sprinkled with fresh chopped chives, dill, and parsley. The coarse-textured bread was perfect for soaking up the delectable juices from Evans's creations.

Kosta's has a large cellar of domestic and imported wines, mostly in the $20-$40 range. An additional ten reds and eight whites are available by the glass, at prices ranging from $5.75 for a 1997 Alsatian GewYrztraminer to $9 for a 1996 Napa Valley Merlot. We were happy to get a visit from the restaurant's wine steward, Todd Robinson, with a sample of the evening's featured wine, a 1996 Vosne-Romanee red burgundy. But at a resounding $13 a glass, or $50 a bottle, we decided to pass.

Kosta's ever-changing dessert selections are made by pastry chef Scott Totten and include a number of unusual items. I was crazy about the fruit tart that had topped off my previous lunch at Kosta's: a buttery shortcake crust filled with plump blueberries, red raspberries, and sections of mandarin oranges, placed on a pool of wonderfully rich creme Anglaise and decorated with sweet swirls of raspberry and apricot coulis.

Even though the tart wasn't available on the night of our dinner visit, my needs were amply satisfied by a magnificent, warm toasted-coconut macaroon. Roughly the size and shape of a pear, topped with buttery caramel, and set upon an intricately patterned pool of caramel and creme Anglaise, the dessert was crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and sinfully rich.

A portion of Creme Brulee was likewise rich and delicious, and was presented with a single plump strawberry and several perfect, fat blueberries and blackberries.

Our chocolate lover finished his meal with the Brownie Tower: two large, triangular chocolate-nut brownies propped up against several scoops of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. While I thought the brownies were edging toward dryness and lacked much punch, our diner managed to force down every last bite.

When it came to our final dessert selection, Kosta's proved that passion is full of surprises. The item described by our pleasant young waiter sounded innocent enough: a two-layer yellow cake with raspberry filling. But what we got was downright bizarre. A very large, oval-shaped serving of cake had been coated with shiny blue frosting, labeled "VGR 50," and then placed before our diner--a lady of the utmost refinement. We aren't humor-impaired, but when we naively asked our waiter what the cake was disguised as, we were shocked to hear the flustered fellow blurt out, "The 'little blue pill.' You know--Viagra!" While I'm sure it was all supposed to be funny, we found it embarrassing. And I shudder to think of how that would have gone over, had we been entertaining for business rather than pleasure.

Besides, it's clear enough to me that nobody in Kosta's kitchen should be thinking about Viagra, anyway. The food that comes out of there is full of force, vitality, and a zest for life. Even if every dish doesn't always go the distance, the ones that do are enough to keep a diner satisfied.

Kosta's. 2179 West 11th Street, Cleveland. 216-622-0011. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Bar stays open later. Closed Sunday.

Triple Exotic Mushroom Puff Pastry $6.95

Potato, Leek, and Stilton-Filled Dumplings $7.50

Bibb Salad $6

Kosta Salad $4.95

Chargrilled Muscovy Duck $21.95

Braised Short Ribs $18.95

Winter Vegetable Medley $15.95

Pork Tenderloin $18.95

Braised Veal Stew (lunch portion) $8.95

Brownie Tower With Ice Cream $6

The Blue Pill $9.95

Coconut Macaroon $5.50

Creme Brulee $6.50