A wreck of a rec room

I don't know what it takes to create perfect dining atmospherics. Something homey, perhaps, with lots of rich wood, rough-hewn stone, a roaring fire, fresh flowers, gauzy window treatments, and tables with thick padding so your elbows don't get sore between courses.

I do know, however, what it takes to create the perfect rec room; the kind of space any self-respecting air hockey table would give its left blower to inhabit. And it's beautifully displayed in a far North Dallas strip mall at Midway and Trinity Mills, a retail linkage that includes La Mirabelle and Sweet Basil.

Toss aside the green awning out front and the patio dining area overlooking the scenic asphalt upon which herds of Chevy Suburbans, Toyota Camrys, and Jeep Cherokees gently drip their lubricants. The true beauty of Cozy's lies in its slick innards--it's a rec room-lover's dream. The clean, white walls are slapped with mahogany panel accents. Framed metal sculptures rendering musical doodads such as notes and piano keys add a bit of chicness. Tinted glass and subdued lighting shroud the space in perpetual clubby darkness--even at midday. There's even a stage for live jazz and R&B on the weekends.

Perhaps the best place to contemplate the Cozy's experience is in its cigar lounge, which, loudly announced with a bright neon sign above this small cove, contains leather chairs and sofas, a piano, a fireplace with a wooden mantel, and a couple of television sets. Just outside the lounge is a lighted wood-and-glass cigar closet displaying a variety of stogies for your smog-sucking pleasure. And in case you get careless with a smoldering Macanudo and perforate your duds with a 49-ring-gauge vent, that same case offers replacement silk ties for 25 bucks.

But the real mystery behind this crisp, cold haunt is how it got stuck with that name: The moniker pairs with the atmospherics about as well as George Bush does with a set of readable lips. "Once they ended up building it, the name really didn't fit," says chef Michael Kobelt, formerly of 8.0. "I don't want to say I'm kind of stuck with it, but I kind of am." Kobelt, who recently became a partner in Cozy's with owner Bill Page, a semi-retired contractor, says Cozy's was originally conceived as an upscale jazz bar. Now, he says he's trying to transform it into a neighborhood American grill.

Maybe he's stuck with the name. But let's hope he isn't stuck with the menu--unless it's hanging on by way of adhesive-strength ingredients. This menu is a wad of American grill standards--burgers, steaks, chicken breast, fish--with Italian, Mexican, Asian, and Cajun influences welded to every substance you can up-end with a fork.

But the welds aren't strong enough to hold most of the food together, at least in a culinary sense. The spicy lamb tostadas, a pile of arid ground lamb seasoned with ginger, mint, and cayenne set on a crisp tortilla, exploded into shards of brittle shell and little balls of meat with every attempted bite or cut, making it harder to swallow than a Marv Albert toupee-in-hand public apology. The accompanying goat cheese and pineapple salsa did little to smooth the frayed flavors, though it did inject a provocative tangy spice.

Stuck on like an ill-fitting zoot suit, the batter coating for the honey-dipped chicken lifted and separated from the breast meat with each cut. Worse, the batter was mushy, while the inner surface where it adhered to the flesh was as smooth and slick as if it had been treated with Armor All. A ladle of roasted jalapeno gravy--a grayish cream ooze that seemed inspired by school-lunch program specifications--had little flavor despite its racy title. In fact, the absence of an underlying flavor structure upon which to hang these diddle-dallying treatments sent the whisper of honey sweetness into an aimless float across the palate.

Armor All seemed a critical ingredient in the homemade fried zucchini too: large summer squash slices with a thick, golden brown coating. Heavy and oily with slick inner surfaces, this kitchen construction featured vegetable wedges that slid right out of the batter when you took a bite.

One offering that, on paper, had all the markings of success was the tortilla-crusted red snapper with tomatillo sauce and cilantro rice. Unfortunately, the only success was the side of rice: moist, supple, and accessorized with tomato, pepper, and onion. The main attraction made me squeamish; its thick blanket of tomatillo sauce mercilessly bludgeoned the delicate, sweet fish with bruising drop-kicks of spice and salt.

The grilled Black Angus ribeye could have used a couple of these swift kicks. Though cooked to near-perfection, the fatty, stringy meat just didn't have much flavor. Black Angus designations have turned up a lot of serious disappointments as of late. Is there some careless menu-labeling or quality dilution going on out there? The thing that really took the blandness crown, however, was the smoked baked potato enchiladas with black bean and corn relish. Not that the assemblage lacked flavor; after all, there was that smoke. It's just that the mealy textures created by the tortilla-potato kinship were so off-putting that you didn't really care what flavors the thing offered as long as someone was standing by to wash out your mouth with a garden hose.  

And that's the thing about Cozy's: It's in dire need of some gardening; a tilling of manure into the philosophy; a sprinkler spurt into the imagination. Everything here seems hard-edged and over-manufactured with a contrived sophistication--the exact opposite of what jazz evokes, or what cozy connotes.

It means "the prince" in Arabic. Yet it's difficult to apply that meaning to Al-Amir, the Dallas restaurant with the royal moniker. For Al-Amir isn't simply a dining venue; it's a Lebanese restaurant-nightclub combo locked in a heroic struggle to overcome decorative touches that seem borrowed from the bowling-alley school of design.

Al-Amir is a jungle of plastic foliage graced with dark paneling from a Nixon-era suburban family room and dingy carpeting with seams so frayed and separated it could keep a personal injury lawyer busy for years. Two prominent pieces of decor greet patrons near the entrance: a waterfall and a gazebo. Peer into the pool of water just below the falls, and you'll find a plastic turtle in a golf-pants shade of lime green. Scan the rocky slopes that the water runs over, and you'll discover a tiny plastic deer crouched in the splashing flow--a Robert Reich-sized amphibian with hoofs. The gazebo, featuring bouquets of fake roses and padded benches, is not only a tasteful design touch; it would also make a swell place to put on bowling shoes.

To be sure, most of these interior flourishes are holdovers from Sumo Sushi, which occupied the large space (and is still next door) before Al-Amir owners Lori and John Alsenih transformed it into a Lebanese eatery. The tri-level restaurant has a main dining area on the ground floor, more tables plus private rooms with floor seating on the upper level, and a small nightclub in the bowels of the place with a stage, colored spotlights, a DJ nook, a mirrored wall, and one of those reflective disco balls that makes everyone cop a dance floor stance and point at the ceiling whenever it spins.

Add to this Leisure Suit Larry ambiance a bit of cultural authenticity--namely, belly dancers with creamy, glittered skin who quiver, shiver, toss their hair, and jut their hips toward men clutching wads of folded bills. The nightclub also offers elaborate water pipes equipped with hashish-like cakes of fruit-flavored tobaccos for group smoking. The experience is surreal and aromatic, as though the place had been vandalized with clashing car air-fresheners.

The menu seems also to have been visited by vandals. Written in both Arabic and English, it features a few "special delicacies," which include lamb tongue and vegetable salad, lamb brain with lemon juice and olive oil, and lamb "eggs." Lest you wonder how a mammal can reproduce via externally developing embryos, it should be noted that the term "eggs" is actually a euphemistic reference to testicles.

Whether or not you choose one of the delicacies, your meal will begin with pita bread and a dish of flavorful olive oil seasoned with oregano, thyme, and sesame seeds. The pita bread was hot, but tough and chewy--as if it had been microwaved. Cut in triangles, it got harder as the meal went on, taking on the consistency of asbestos roofing shingles.

Lori Alsenih says that Al-Amir is the first truly authentic Lebanese restaurant in Dallas, and that other places Americanize their fare. She cites tabbouleh as an example: Americanized tabbouleh, she says, has more bulgur (cracked wheat) than it does parsley; true tabbouleh has just a sprinkling of cracked wheat. But while the tabbouleh included in the mazza layali--a selection of eight appetizers--put fresh, crisp parsley at the forefront of the mixture that included scallions and tomato with a tiny toss of bulgur, it suffered from a drenching of lemon that tasted as if it had been squeezed from badly browning fruit. Better was the hummus--made with pulverized chick peas, garlic, sesame sauce, and lemon--and the babaghanouj--a dip with an engaging smoky tang made with grilled eggplant, garlic, lemon, and sesame oil.

But the stuffed grape leaves, served cold (it's appropriate to serve them hot or cold), were hard, waxy, and virtually flavorless--like biting into a candle. Equally unattractive was the labni: a yogurt cheese seasoned with garlic and mint. This dip was so sour, it puckered the mouth into immobility. Mushy lentil soup (no discernible beans) did little to spark confidence that our meal would trend upward; this garlicky pottage with lemon and pepper lacked finesse and seemed borne of a crock pot left to stew for days on end.  

The entrees nose-dived from there. The beef shish kabob--skewers of filet mignon seasoned with salt, pepper, and olive oil--was little more than a row of tough, chewy meat cubes sans enticing flavor. Shish tawook--a kabob of chicken breast cubes--was a bit better, but not much. These dry, skewered bird breast cubes had a sharp spice bite with little fullness in the middle mouth. Salvation came in the form of a culinary salve: a plastic cup of a robust dipping sauce of pureed garlic in olive oil and lemon.

But there was no salvation for the kafta kabob: skewered lean ground beef seasoned with Lebanese spices, pepper, parsley, and onion. It opened with such a forcefully off flavor (old meat perhaps?) that I found it impossible to explore further without combat pay. These meat skewers also came with a grilled vegetable kabob that was so shriveled and charred it was impossible to identify the contents without dental charts. Al-Amir's kabobs are presented on a perfumey, texturally limp rice-vermicelli mixture seasoned with allspice. It's prepared in a three-step process consisting of sauteing, baking, and simmering in chicken or beef flavorings. This is supposed to make it tender, firm, and moist, but it leaves it more bland and clumped than anything.

Al-Amir seems to be doing a little too much as it strains to capture authenticity (though interestingly, their relatively diverse wine list has no Lebanese wines). In the process, it chokes on its own inattention to, and sloppiness with, details. A structural renovation coupled with a concerted focus on the menu, from basic ingredients to presentation--in essence, a hike back to square one--could make this one of the more pleasantly distinctive venues in Dallas.

Al-Amir. 7402 Greenville Ave., Suite 101. (214) 739-2647. Open Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; and Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Cozy's. 17610 Midway Road, Suite 128. (972) 267-2797. Open Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight; Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Sunday.

Readers with comments may e-mail Mark Stuertz at markstz@juno.com.

Homemade fried zucchini $4.95
Spicy lamb tostadas $6.45
Honey-dipped chicken $8.95
Tortilla-crusted red snapper $13.95
Grilled Black Angus ribeye $15.95

Lentil bean soup $3.95
Mazza layali $16.95
Beef shish kabob $12.95
Shish tawook $10.95
Kafta kabob $9.95
Beid gahanam ("lamb eggs

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