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RESTAURANT REVIEW : In Need of Finesse : Cosmos Grill offers nice decor and familiar California cuisine menu. But its failures can be major.

August 12, 1994|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Max Jacobson reviews restaurants every Friday in Valley Life!

CALABASAS — On a warm Friday evening, it's standing room only, the front desk at Cosmos Grill informs us, for at least half an hour more.

This recent addition to the West Valley dining scene has been popular from the start, filling the void left by the departure of the former occupant, La Cuisine de Bernadette. Credit artful style, a cheery outdoor patio and a familiar California-style menu for its good fortune. Now what this place could use is more finesse. Cosmos Grill pushes most of the proper concept buttons, often successfully, but its failures can be major.

The long, narrow dining room, which features an open kitchen for your entertainment, showcases Op Art paintings that somehow manage to be reminiscent simultaneously of Van Gogh and Timothy Leary on its earth-tone walls. There are comfy fabric booths to sit in, and colored canvas umbrellas to shield out sun if you snare a spot on the patio.

Sifting through a menu of salads, sandwiches, pastas and rotisserie meats is something a practiced California grill diner can do in his sleep. But a few odd new wrinkles appear on this one. One is something the menu deceptively calls shrimp egg roll. Another is the restaurant's eccentric Mediterranean sandwich.

You might bypass the shrimp egg roll because of its mundane-sounding name, though the menu description would alert you that there's something unusual going on here. As a matter of fact, it would be a pretty good idea to bypass this one. Think of it as wacky deep-fried sushi, or a wacky underdone chimichanga : a filling of rice, lots of shredded spinach, a few shrimp and several halved almonds, wrapped in an egg roll skin and deep fried. Were it done perfectly, it might succeed. It isn't, though, and that rice soaks up oil like a V-8 engine.

The Mediterranean sandwich is another creative idea gone astray. It starts with good toasted rye bread smeared with a Kalamata olive puree, and I, for one, would have been perfectly happy if the kitchen had stopped right there. But it goes on to add grilled eggplant, asparagus, roasted red pepper, tomato, avocado and Swiss cheese. Tasty on their own, these components confuse the palate when they're piled together, not to mention sogging up the bread.

With California cuisine basics we are mostly on terra firma. There are crunchy crab cakes, served astride an appealing red pepper coulis. The fine Cobb salad features apple-smoked bacon bits, turkey, avocado and a good blue cheese dressing. Artichoke is delicious here, finished on the grill (giving it a taste of oak) and served with a sweet sesame oil dipping sauce.

And I'm glad to say the kitchen is scrupulous about cooking its pastas al dente , though one or two of the pasta sauces seem labored. For instance, the angel hair pomodoro is a paragon of simplicity, the tomato, garlic and basil working magic together. But not the tequila chicken fettuccine--tomato, peppers, cilantro and chicken mixed with pasta and a light cream sauce. If they went a little easier on the tequila, the result would make more sense.

You won't find fault with a lot of the main dishes, such as the rotisserie chicken, its crisp skin flecked with tarragon. It comes with perfectly cooked mixed vegetables and homey mashed potatoes with country gravy, making for solid, restorative fare that will please almost anyone.

But the memory of that chicken can be wiped out by something like the stuffed meatloaf. It's a bad idea to begin with--a turkey, spinach and mushroom mixture with a mysterious cylinder of dark matter (the stuffing, one supposes) in the middle. On top of that, ours came to the table frazzled and dry, tasting only of fennel.

The vegetable stir-fry at least looks good on paper. Indeed, the vegetables that have been put in it are themselves quite good--eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, broccoli and various peppers, among other things. But why have they all been drowned in a hideously salty mushroom-soy sauce?

Breads and desserts, provided by Old Town Bakery of Pasadena, are one redeeming feature of Cosmos Grill. They are knockout, high-end stuff like almond rocca cake, a yellow cake layered with praline butter and chocolate ganache and strewn with homemade almond candy chunks on top, where you'd expect frosting. Or lemon hazelnut torte, a moon-shaped pie consisting of thin layers of meringue with a smooth, lemon hazelnut filling.

Where and When

Location: Cosmos Grill, 23631 Calabasas Road, Calabasas.

Suggested Dishes: grilled artichoke, $4.95; Cobb salad, $8.95; angel hair pomodoro , $7.95; rotisserie herb chicken, 8.95; almond rocca cake, $4.50.

Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday through Saturday.

Price: Dinner for two, $18-$35. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.

Call: (818) 591-2211.

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