Cosmos, the upscale and highly-designed restaurant in the Graves, debuted in 2004 to rave reviews. Seven years later, I found a restaurant—once the New Hotness personified—in flux. Having shuffled its fair share of chefs and weathered the collapse of fine dining, where does it stand?
Opening chef Seth Bixby Daugherty was acclaimed for creating innovative plates out of fresh, local produce. In 2005, he was named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs, only to leave the restaurant in December of 2006 to start his own business.
While losing such a defining chef at the top of his game might be devastating, the restaurant found itself in good hands with Stephen Trojahn, who didn't stray too far from the footprint Daugherty set. Indeed, the Star Tribune invited Trojahn's Cosmos into the four star club with a 2008 review. Then, in 2009 Trojahn was let go unexpectedly and chef de cuisine Håkan Lundberg stepped up.
During the last couple of years, if Cosmos has seemed a little unmoored, I think it has more to do with a marketplace wary of fine dining and an organization trying to figure out how to adapt. Early this spring, Lundberg moved on, and John Occhiato (pictured above) was named chef. Occhiato had been the golden boy in the last years of D'Amico Cucina and was in charge as it evolved into the D'Amico Kitchen at the Chambers. The new kitchen received positive reviews but never seemed to settle into the starry spot that Cucina held in the eyes of foodists. In early 2010, Occhiato left to partner in an import business, which still occupies a portion of his time.
It's clear that Occhiato is bringing a bit of his Italian background to Cosmos while slowly but surely adding plates to the menu. Among the new starters, the shaved asparagus with chicory is nicely paired with nutty jamon serrano, but it comes alive with a sweet hit of passion fruit vinaigrette. Beef carpaccio, while soft and lovely on its own, seemed incongruent with dense black-eyed peas.
Several dishes are served in small or full portions: pappardelle in crème fraîche with favas and peas had a softly tangy vegetal bite, while fennel pollen-crusted pan-roasted scallops were fat beauties seared with a perfect edge. A bigger plate of crispy-skinned Arctic char with foamed miso was tasty, if not a little contrived. But a plate of sweet potato angnolotti with melted leeks, artichokes, and squash blossoms deserved full points for being earthy and savory while remaining light. It seems that the dishes that win the most are the ones that come from simple flavors constructed in an interesting way.
I was supremely disappointed with the cocktail selection stacked with vodka martinis and showing not a shadow of the innovation going on in Bradstreet below. When asked to make something fun with bourbon, the bartender returned with a very textbook hotel old fashioned. Really?
But maybe that gets to the core of a seven-year itch—that struggle between what was and what should be? Not a young turk sporting all the gastro gadgets, Occhiato is a guy who understands food and flavors, and he can cook food that satisfies. I don't think he's there to create some indelible innovative mark on the menu but to bring some order and influence that should provide stability, hopefully for years to come. During one of my meals, I got a text from a friend who was at the current New Hotness, asking why I wasn't there with "everybody else." I guess time will tell if Occhiato is the one to create a Cosmos for the next seven years.