Cosmopolitan Heights

Jana Freiband
Le Meridien Minneapolis
601 First Ave. N., Minneapolis

Me, I have experienced the miracle of the cosmos, here and there. One time it was when I stood in Giotto's Arena Chapel, with the blue plaster and gold stars above and the ring-around of heaven's grace come into the tragic life of man. Another time, it was when I confronted the sideways rocks jutting like crashed flying saucers out of the rushing rapids in the St. Louis River, up by Duluth. And, you know, a few weeks ago in this bar. The bar at Cosmos.

Which is contiguous with the restaurant at Cosmos--one stretching, segmented, art-filled room that ends in a lilting sculpture of tilting mirrors. One cathedrallike space planted with vast pillars of blond and brown striped wood, wondrous columns that soar to vast heights, each wrapped with razor-thin sheets of wood matchbooked together so that each sheet of grain reflects itself as if it were looking in the mirror, as if it were a tree turned inside out, the organic pattern both varying and invariant, as human faces are.

Everywhere are organic and geometric glass walls, glass shelves, and glass lamps, everything glowing, turning, yet serene. And everywhere is marble, thinly striped and well-ordered, threads of gray and brown elegance. And as I have sat at the bar at Cosmos and had my heart race at the spectacle of this restaurant Cosmos, I think: When and who and where and why, what Kool-Aid did I drink?

Have you ever wondered what might happen if Charles and Ray Eames fell into a supercollider with a print of the Matrix? Here it is: Everything is completely organic and completely technologic; utterly calm and utterly fierce; irrefutably church-like and irrefutably sexy.

That's some room.

Why, they could serve nothing but single Saltines on giant porcelain platters, and this place would be a premier Minneapolis destination for hipster anniversary dinners and earthshaker power lunches. They go a titch past that, though. At lunch, you'll find simple, elegant American fare, like an open-faced lobster club sandwich ($14)--an eggy platform of bread crowned with a snowball of fresh, hand-picked lobster and clean green half-moons of avocado, the whole united with an understated mayonnaise given a bit of a bottom note with the char imparted by roasted red bell peppers. A quarter-chicken, potato hash, and string bean lunch ($13) would be familiar to any farmer, except that here it's local Wild Acres chicken, the potatoes are given salt and depth with serrano ham and broadened in appeal with celeriac, the green beans are thin, elegant haricots verts. Please note that the lobster club, a burger, and other sandwiches are served, with fries, in the bar until 2:00 a.m.! The restaurant is also open for breakfast daily and brunch on the weekends.

It's at dinner that the restaurant shines brightest, though, because that's when diners have time to ooh and aah over the elaborate bits of artfulness the kitchen is capable of. In one unforgettable appetizer a pair of scallops, seared brown without, glimmering limpidly within, had their tender ocean taste amplified in the most refreshing, understated way by a bowl of cucumber broth as green, clean, and focused as a single blade of grass, the whole of it given festive color by carefully cut confetti of tomato and bell pepper ($9).

It's in dishes like this that the cooking of executive chef Seth Bixby Daugherty, who heads both the restaurant and massive banquet operations of the hotel, is strongest. Whenever two strong flavors are allowed to play against--and thus amplify--one another, the cooking truly shines. A terrine of yellow beets and goat cheese ($9) looked like something you could pin to your blouse and wear to art openings: Alternating stripes of gold and pale cream, as precise as if they had been drawn with rulers, made a large square on the plate and rested upon a salad of wilted basil and white truffle oil. The earthy taste of beet and truffle leaned against the meadow sharpness of basil and chèvre, each brightening each.

One of the standout dishes of the year has to be the veal cheeks braised in red wine and set in a lentil stew thickened with foie gras ($25). Tasting this tender, tender dish is like understanding the word velvet for the first time; it just dissolves in plush, vanishing spoonfuls. Chef Daugherty prides himself on getting his ingredients from the greatest American farmers he can locate, so the menu is chock-a-block with the various Guccis and Puccis of farming: Tender greens and teensy little micro-herbs are Fed-Exed in from Ohio's Chef's Garden, and lamb chops ($28) come from Summerfield Farms (and they are in fact herbal, subtle, and fine).  

Niman Ranch supplies much of the beef, including the best beef tenderloin ($26) I've ever had: a simple cut of beef as tender as a piece of white bread, set beside a jewellike pool of red-wine sauce, roasted porcini mushrooms, and Yukon gold potato purée done with just enough butter to be devourable, but not so much that it starts to seem like dessert. I have come to think of ambitious restaurants' steaks as the Dad Test: It's one thing to smoke bits of hamachi and scatter them about the plate with leaves of basil invisible to the naked eye in the hope of seducing over-articulated food lunatics such as myself, but to be able to impress the dream chasers while also dazzling the dads? That's some restaurant.

The only time the place really seems to stumble is when there's no one in it: I was there on a sleepy, empty Tuesday lunch once and everything was overcooked and oversalted. A French onion soup ($6) was shockingly common, that chicken I had cooed over once was pallid and overdone, and I felt like I could practically feel the diva-spirit of the restaurant scuffing around petulantly. There was even a second when I feared the whole building would just throw itself down on its stomach while demanding, "What do you expect me to do if no one's here?"

Desserts are not the restaurant's strong suit. Both the pumpkin chèvre cheesecake ($8) and the chocolate tarragon cake ($8) seemed more like things that would have gone with meat as an entrée. They were under-sweet, and the cheesecake came with a baffling pom-pom of plain micro-basil. But more important, both lacked that certain light spirit that desserts need.

Order the Cosmos Tart ($10), however, and you'll get enough charm and sweetness for the whole table: Here, a tall caramel cage captures enough rich chocolate layers of cake and topping and thick, trufflelike filling to sate a whole tableful of chocolate pilgrims. Set the thing beside one of the best cups of espresso in town and voilà! The Midwest's first power coffee date.

While I'll confess that the tea-bag tea service could use a little goosing, any other beverage poured in that building is beyond reproach. The apple martini comes with a little kabob of three hand-turned apple spheres. To accompany seafood appetizers, the unpretentious $25 dry French rosé, Jean-Luc Colomb Pioche et Cabanon, cannot be beat: It stands up to both the spice of marinated baby octopus in a chile-edged tomato purée, or the various herbs in the various salads. The rich, plush raspberries and stately structure of Lyeth's California Meritage ($34) make it a perfect red meat wine.

One memorable night they were out of the Lyeth, and the server managed to suggest a comparable wine that was cheaper (a pert and lively Crozes-Hermitage from Delas Frères, for $32), which might well be the first time a server has leapt for what I might want, and not what they might want, and for that I will always be grateful.

Other than that night, the service has been the best-trained I've encountered in years, from reservations staff on down: attentive, helpful, visible when you want them and otherwise melting away in that slipper-footed way that they only tend to know about in Europe.

Now, at this point, dear readers, you will have divided into two camps: Those of you looking at the address atop this article and wondering how a big, splashy destination pleasure cathedral opened in the middle of downtown without your noticing, and those of you food-heads who have been impatiently wondering why it took me this long to review the place. I'll try to answer both questions at once.

Now, Cosmos--Cosmos opened last spring on the fourth floor of Le Meridien hotel, which is that big new building across from the Target Center. And that building only seems to be a festival of middlebrow nowhere like the Hard Rock--but once you leave the dopey streetscape out front you'll find a thrilling series of black, organic-techno anterooms and the elevators that lead up to Cosmos.

When the restaurant opened last spring, it was incredibly splashy and incredibly ambitious. The menu had all sorts of things like baby eels the size of snips of twine, eels that tasted like sweet rubber bands and cost $70 a pound. I kept trying to review it, and kept finding massive changes afoot: The fantastic opening pastry chef left, high tea stopped being served, the $3,000 cheese cart got mothballed, prices plunged dramatically, and so on. You know how in a movie a figure will be coming through some mists, and everyone stands around going, "It's the butler, it's Mrs. Magillicuddy, it's a gorilla," and then they're all wrong? Like that. But now I think Cosmos is all the way out of the mists and in its real incarnation, which is: About twice what you'd pay at Champp's or Olive Garden and makes you feel like a miracle of taste and art, some kind of cross between a hawk, in command of the air over a bluff, powerful and perfect; and a museum curator, living every night in a whirl of such high art, hush, and taste that refinement gilds even the soles of your whispering shoes.  

Can a restaurant really do all that? Or, even worse, a bar? I've thought long and hard about this, about whether it's blasphemous to compare a restaurant experience to something as sacred as a hawk, a section of river, or a chapel. And I think no, I think there's simply something in our human, pattern-loving minds that responds and reverberates when it encounters something so fully wrought, with everything in its perfect place, like the sand and pebbles on a beach, or in this perfectly designed cosmos of Cosmos.

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601 First Ave. N.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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