Universal Discovery

Cosmos is still otherworldly, even if the cool kids have moved on

WHEN COSMOS OPENED four years ago, it was a temple of modern design and cooking: a space-age dining room serving golden osetra caviar, chèvre cheesecake, and sautéed baby eels. Tucked into the sleek, luxurious Le Méridien hotel (now the Graves 601), the restaurant attracted a trendy crowd in search of the latest and greatest. But after the buzz died down, we didn’t hear much about Cosmos; it mellowed into the sort of place where you might meet friends for a cocktail. When it was time for a special-occasion dinner, you wanted to try the new place in town.

As years passed, many of Cosmos’ contemporaries—Aquavit, RockStar, Goodfellow’s—shut their doors, but the hotel restaurant stuck around, maintaining a relatively low profile. Then, about six months ago, Cosmos’ management announced they’d hired a new chef: Stephen Trojahn, who had once helmed New York’s 21 Club. Suddenly Cosmos was back on the radar—local foodies would surely descend to see how things had changed. But during a few recent visits (for a Thursday dinner and a Friday lunch), I was among just a handful of guests. What had happened to this one-time hot spot? If the cool crowd wasn’t there, who was?

Photo by Terry Brennan

On a Monday night, I decide to hit Cosmos one more time, despite the fact that Mondays are the equivalent of the off-season in the restaurant world: customers are few, ingredients aren’t as fresh, and the head chef probably isn’t even in the kitchen. On my way up in the elevator, I wonder if I’ll be the only diner in the room, a sight as depressing as the lonely business travelers squinting at laptops in the lounge. When I step out into the fourth-floor lobby, however, the place is as crowded as the Guthrie at intermission. Groups cluster on couches, circled by a bevy of waiters. I follow the trance-inducing techno beat past the bar and into the dining room, where few seats are available. The room manages to feel both modern and organic, a mix of minimalist lines, decorative glass, and pod-shaped chairs. The striped marble floor evokes the hide of a jungle animal, the walls and tabletops a bamboo forest. The horizontal lines create an overwhelming sense of forward motion—Han Solo kicking the Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive.

In the center of the room, a dozen people crowd a long table, dining, drinking, and gesturing wildly. As they raise their glasses in a toast, my waitress explains that there’s a convention in town. The two women next to me, who—save their lack of stilettos—could pass for characters on Sex and the City, pause their discussion about juggling men to snap digital photos of their entrées. Suddenly, I have the same feeling I do when I learn something new about Minnesota by reading the New York Times: Egads, we’ve been scooped! The out-of-towners are having the time of their lives at a place the locals forgot about.

When my food arrives, I slide my fork into a block of steak tartare to find out if it tastes as good as it looks. The raw beef rests on a tangle of red onions, dehydrated to vegetable jerky. The meat is sprinkled with salt crystals the size of quarter-carat diamonds, accompanied by thin slices of kumquat and dwarf truffle peaches lined up like rows of coins. When the flavors merge—the buttery beef, the citrus bite and bitter peel of the kumquat, the earthiness of the peach, the crunchy spark of the salt—it feels like the “aha” moment of invention.

The cornerstone of Trojahn’s success is sourcing great ingredients, from Minnesota grass-fed ribeye, to $16-an-ounce Japanese Wagyu, to Angus tenderloin that’s served sliced through its center and split like a tropical fruit, blushing deep purple. But Trojahn and his staff most distinguish themselves when pairing ingredients and layering flavors. The lush, coconut-poached halibut is accented with green curry, water chestnuts, and grains of saffron rice, crisp as those on the bottom of a bibimbap pot. The Cosmos’ celery root tart uses thin tuber slices to bookend Swiss chard, corn, green olives, and tomato in a rich, lasagna-like square. It’s also nice to see a vegetarian dish receive the same attention a meat-based entrée, instead of seeming like an afterthought.

Photo by Terry Brennan

Trojahn’s ambitious salmagundi could sometimes use editing—the word truffle appears six times on the dinner menu (the chef says he’d like to scale back, which seems like a good idea). The fourth time I taste the pungent mushroom, in honey paired with a grilled cheese sandwich, it feels like the key change for the final chorus of a pop song, a clichéd way to build intensity.

 Other dishes remind me of what Joy of Cooking says about additions to its niçoise salad: “Keep in mind the law of diminishing returns.” The ahi-tuna tartare is an adventurous ride—a thin, spiky ginger cracker leading to a pert bit of fish and a brushstroke of spicy sriracha mayonnaise—until it lands in a scoop of edamame sorbet, two words that should never appear together. Corn nuts hard enough to crack a tooth upset the delicacy of tempura fried oysters and Asian tatsoi greens, and a muddy-tasting red curry detracts from a vanilla-butter-poached lobster and tasty spring-onion risotto.

But these are minor infractions given the scale of Trojahn’s plans. And by the time the dessert list arrives, I have mostly forgotten them. Pastry chef Khanh Tran continues to build on the reputation she made for herself at the late restaurants Auriga and Levain with her inventive flavor combinations (smoked chocolate with figs, anyone?). The surprise hit of her Spring Tasting, a quartet of tiny sweet bites, is its most daring concoction: a shot-glass-size tumbler of avocado custard, lemon-thyme-basil gelée, and buttermilk sorbet that is equal parts creamy, grassy, and fresh.

To finish tonight’s meal, I choose the Cosmos Chocolate Globe, a holdover from the restaurant’s earliest days. When my server pours warm chocolate sauce on top of the chocolate sphere, it’s like watching a stop-action film of a blooming flower: The shell melts away, leaving behind brandied cherry debris and a still-frozen core of cherry sorbet. I feel like I’ve just witnessed the birth of a star.

The moment reminds me that trendiness can be a hazard in the restaurant business: As soon as the next hot thing comes along, the crowds tend to move on. Perhaps the cool kids were over at the Chambers, or the weeks-old Bank, at the Westin. But I, for one, couldn’t care less. I finish the chocolate like it’s going out of style—though great food and service never will. As long as Cosmos stays focused on those two things, it’ll make the transition from trendy to timeless. MM

Cosmos Restaurant
Graves 601 Hotel
601 First Ave. N., Minneapolis,
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Reservations recommended but not necessary. Parking is validated at the Block E ramp during dinner; free valet during the day. Prices for appetizers range from $11–$16, entrées $18–$32.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.