Saturday, January 30, 2010

River City Supper Club #10

The Club took a break in December and reconvened last Saturday at Cous Cous. Amazingly, none of us had ventured to this restaurant and one us works just two doors from the establishment. We arrived at 6 PM. Actually, most of us found the place by 6 PM and then spent several minutes nabbing a parking spot. My hubby and I decided to park on Monument and walk down. We learned later that the lot next to CousCous is avaiable in the evening. This information is not listed in their web site so I'm not sure if it is a formal arrangement or tacit agreement. While 6PM seemed a tad early for dinner and diners were sparse upon our arrival, the place quickly filled and before we left every table in the room and every chair at the bar had been filled.

The interior of Cous Cous welcomed us into a dark, candle-lit, gauzy, bohemian space. I felt comfortable and cozy. A couple of our Supper Club members sported varying opinions:

From R-Prime: The atmosphere was loud and dark – much like a nightclub which immediately did not bode well. This atmosphere was furthered as our waitress began to lose clothing through the evening….had I not been with guests this would have been enough for me to leave prior to ordering (the atmosphere that is, not the waitress).

From K: Taking into account the location of the restaurant (in the heart of VCU), I thought the decor and noise level of Cous Cous was to be commended. I found that it was not as crowded and noisy as some VCU/fan restaurants can be.

Now on to the wine. Cous Cous offered a variety that my husband and I found appealing and most were $30 and under. Each couple in the Club ordered a different red wine. It took a while for our waitress to understand that we each wanted three separate glasses so we could compare. Once she got on the band wagon, she beautifully accomodated us with different glass styles. Only B managed to mix the reds, but that was only once.

Our wine choices included (pardon the pictures, the place was really dark):

Martin Codax Ergo Rioja

Trapiche Broquel Malbec

L de Lyeth Merlot

All were immensely quaffable. The one earning top accolades was the merlot. Neither my husband nor I were too surprised that the merlot took the top honors, Lyeth has been a consistent producer from California and we have enjoyed many of their wines (we are very partial to the meritages). But for our dining companions, the discovery of a yummy merlot was unique.

From K: I can honestly report that I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Merlot, as my luck with them has been intermittent at best. I attribute this fine selection to the masterful knowledge of my dining companions, as I rarely pursue Merlots myself. I also found the Malbec most interesting and would like to compare it to a couple of other Malbecs in a tasting.

From R-Prime: Oh, but speaking of the wine--in my opinion, for price and finish, the winning wine of the evening was actually the Lyeth Merlot! Admittedly I have been trained to be a snob to merlots both by friends and Hollywood. But this Merlot’s spicy finish was surprising and complex – hints of cherry, white pepper both delicately placed under an inviting herbal bouquet. In fact the Merlot in itself was much like my evening at Cous Cous, expectations started low and finished with one delightful surprise after the other.

I think our wine experience emphasizes the fact that not all merlots are bad. In fact, I will even admit that not all chardonnays are bad (but I do tend to be more of a snob when it comes to this white grape). Thus, when any of you go out to a wine shop or grocery store, etc. and a tasting is offered, unless you absolutely know the stuff is crap (i.e. you have tasted it before and either spit or poured the liquid out), give it a try. You may well find a gem.

Enough of the soapbox. On with the food.

The Cous Cous menu presented a variety of small plates. The one question all of us had was how big or small were these plates? If they were too small all six of us would not be able to share. We decided to each order our own things as a couple.

For B and G
  • Harira Soup - Traditional family style home cooked soup w/ braised lamb and wild rice
  • Lamb Tagine with Mediterranean Cous Cous w/ spinach, onions, garlic topped w/ feta and kalamata olives
  • Chicken B'stilla - Moroccan pot pie w/ chicken and eggs mixed w/ almonds, onions, apricots, and mixed vegetables w/ a sweet spicy finish
  • Almond Baklava
  • Chocolate Bread Pudding with a Bourbon Glaze

Comments from G:

The soup was very tasty. It was a little on the oily side, but the flavors were great.

The Lamb Tagine was something I expected. It had a really good flavor profile, it was not overpowered by spices and you could actually taste the lamb. The lamb itself was very tender not gamy, it did not have a pungent smell or taste due to age and gender of the animal (usually female lambs that are older than 12 months tend to have that unique gamy flavor and smell) . The Mediterranean Cous Cous was bland, however when it was eaten with the lamb it was not disappointing.

I was not impressed by the Chicken B'stilla. It did not do much for me. Instead of complementing, sweet and savory flavors were rather fighting against each other.

Almond Baklava was OK nothing special.

Chocolate Bread Pudding was certainly something that I would be reluctant to order in a Moroccan Restaurant. Since it is one of B's favorite deserts, she could not resist ordering it. To me it was little on the bitter side (too much cooking chocolate was used) and it needed more alcohol.

B did not get back to me with any comments but she really liked the soup,especially on a cold evening, and she raved about the Chicken B'stilla. (I tried a piece of the chicken dish, but did not care for it. My hubby would not even consider it since it contained apricots.)

For R-Prime and K:
  • Fried calamari w/ tangy remoulade
  • Chicken Tagine with Mediterranean Cous Cous w/ spinach, onions, garlic topped w/ feta and kalamata olives
  • Lamb Shank - Slow roasted shank served over brussel sprouts & potatoes and lamb demi glaze
  • Chicken B'stilla - Moroccan pot pie w/ chicken and eggs mixed w/ almonds, onions, apricots, and mixed vegetables w/ a sweet spicy finish
Comments from R-Prime:

The Lamb Shank, while older than I like, was tender and delicately oiled. As the description read – indeed it fell off the bone. The potatoes and Brussels sprouts were slightly over cooked but still brought a nice satisfying stick-to-your-ribs quality to this dish. As I cleared my plate, I found myself digging for the marrow and even made several failed attempted to break the bone in an attempt to enjoy this portion of the meal a little longer…

Despite my enjoyment of the lamb, the Chicken B’Stilla that I shared with K (at the recommendation of B) was the hit of the evening for me. The flakey pastry crust was appealingly light and the chicken was well complimented by the chutney-esque flavors of the filling’s spices, apricots and mixed veggies. The dish had a slow, spicy burn that built as we progressed through the dish. It made the dry fruitiness of the Trapiche Malbec and the Codax Tempranillo even more delightful.

Comments from K:

R-Prime and I shared the fried calamari with remoulade sauce. The calamari was tender and lightly battered and thoroughly enjoyable. I would have preferred a wedge of lemon to squeeze over and the remoulade was lackluster and screamed of being yet another use for 1000 island dressing. I ordered the chicken tagine with mediterranean couscous. The chicken was extremely tender and left me wanting more. The mediterranean couscous was only average--not enough acid, vegetables, or seasoning to enable this blank canvas of a starch to make a statement.

R-Prime and I also shared the chicken b'stilla. I thought this was the highlight of the meal--balancing bits of savory chicken, sweet apricots, and the texture of nuts with a spicy hotness that presented progressively through the mouth and building in intensity that never overshadowed the main ingredients or became uncomfortable. The sriracha sauce used as a decorative garnish was a pretty but unnecessary companion as this dish was complex enough to stand on its own.

Hubby and Me
  • Manchego Fritters - Manchego (spanish cheese) w/a mango coulis
  • Chicken Tagine with Mediterranean Cous Cous w/ spinach, onions, garlic topped w/ feta and kalamata olives
  • Chicken Kebab with Moroccan Cous Cous w/ chopped vegetables seasoned w/ moroccan spices
  • Chocolate Bread Pudding with a Bourbon Glaze
  • Chocolate Hazelnut Torte

Our comments:

The fritters tasted more like fried bread than cheese. A bit disappointing. The chicken tagine made up for it. Tender, stewed chicken with vegetables. And more than enough for a meal. Unfortunately the Mediterranean cous cous did not deliver on its promised flavor of feta and olives. With this combination the flavor should have been intense. It was lackluster and also room temperature. The same for the chicken kebab. Boring taste, but the Moraccan cous cous provided another highlight of the evening. This is the starch to get here. A ton of flavor with a vinegary/lemony undertone.

My spouse appreciated the rich chocolate  flourless torte, although the crust was made with almonds and pecans. He could not distinguish any hazelnuts. I agreed with G regarding the bread pudding. The chocolate overwhelmed this dessert. It would have been okay if the glaze had contained the promised bourbon flavor.

At the end of the evening we were quite full and satisfied. While some of the food could have been better, we discovered a few stellar dishes. Although Cous Cous advertizes small plates, most of the items we ordered were large enough for a meal, especially the tagines. For folks on a budget or ones seeking places for a cheap date, this is a good place. In fact, Mondays are Date Nights with a $40 dinner for two special.

Cous Cous on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

That review was so long that I wished I'd brought a snack.

Gascon Malbec Ambassador said...

I'd actually be interested to hear more about the Malbec, though the Merlot sounds divine. If you're interested in doing some cross-comparisons I'd recommend our own Don Miguel Gascon -- I usually recommend our Argentine Malbec to Cabernet and Merlot drinkers when they want to try something a little bolder. It’s similar to a Cabernet in its tannins and fullness of flavor, but there’s a complexity there as well.

Mommy Gourmet said...

I am shocked that everyone was so surprised by the Merlot... especially for big wine drinkers. I know, Merlot got a bit watered down in its boom by mass producers, but good quality Merlot has always been amazing.