As we exited The Cosmopolitan Bistro one Saturday evening, a manager chased us out to the curb and stuffed our fists with a stack of bright gold $5 gift certificates. He apologized because the band that was supposed to play that night stood him up for a higher-paying gig elsewhere. He scrambled to find fill-in minstrels, and by the time they arrived to start setting up, the hour was aging. Plus, the scent of programmed percussion--the sonic equivalent of crushed velour--was strong. Then, as we were about to shut the car door, that manager ran out again and slipped two more gift certificates into our hands; purple currency good for free Cosmochas ("our signature coffee"). This is a man who is committed, a man who has faith.
On the surface, it's hard to know why. Cosmopolitan Bistro is sophistication in tatters. Service can be plodding and clueless. On one visit, our server didn't seem to appreciate the difference between red and white wine, which in all fairness is not that great when the label is "house." Cabernet was ordered; chardonnay was dispatched. When confronted with the notion that cabernet was not white, she offered to bring us a beer. Outages are frequent. OK, not that frequent, but the menu is small, so when the server says there is no prime rib, it affects the orbit of the place. And with a couple of exceptions, the rest of the menu is forgettable, if not searingly memorable in unintended ways.
Still, you should visit at least once, if not twice, after which you will be addicted. How can this be? Let's survey the menu to diagram the challenges this addiction must surmount. The shrimp cocktail de crevette, a dish that seems named solely to provide the bistro with the required urbane frill, was enthusiastically recommended. It's served in the Cosmopolitan martini glass, a vessel brimming with ruddy sauce. Three shrimp are hooked on the rim. Beyond this edge, in the depths of the glass, are still more shrimp lurking in the murky zest. These are competent things: firm and juicy, not powerfully rich, but inoffensive. Then a flaw is exposed. Hidden with jellyfish stealth are large clumps of coagulated horseradish that sear the tongue and itch the gums when mistaken for shrimp.
Surely, a quarter-pound of pulverized beef topped with lettuce, tomato and pickle would be better. It is not. The Main Street burger is spongy, gray, dry and thoroughly uninteresting. Street smoked brisket, covered with a dark sauce, is dry and brittle, crumbling into segments as the fork strikes.
These entrées come with a choice of sides: green beans, mashed potatoes, buttered corn, rice and wedge potatoes. The rice is fine, as are the wedges. Corn works well, in that the heating and buttering didn't detract from the established quality vapor-locked into the can. Green beans were dismal: long, limp and slightly slimy.
How can this chain of catastrophic events be redeemed? There is the Roman Empire Caesar salad. This empire is stripped down to a rootless chassis, with iceberg lettuce shuffled into the romaine domain. Dressing is dull, with no anchovy, lemon or raw egg evidence, but the leaves are crisp and void of any browning shrivel.
Shrimp Mardi Gras, billed as 10 luscious shrimp in garlic sauce on a white rice bed, is more like 10 exhausted shrimp that offer little more than a spongy experience of soap, which I suppose is better than offering an experience of stench. French Quarter gumbo is dull. Bacon-wrapped chicken breast is dry and was not at all swaddled in cured pork. Precooked strips are laid on top.
So how is it possible to arouse a jones for the place? For starters, it's an attractive space with Main Street flair. Large black awnings rim the windows. A counter with stools butts up against the Main Street glass. Chairs are constructed of twisted metal ribbon anchored to wooden seats. Tables are covered in white cloth. There is a steam table for a lunch buffet.
So what? That's still not enough to trump menu tragedy. Recovery begins with Bourbon Street Buffalo wings. Saddled with celery stalks and a ramekin of pedestrian ranch dressing, these wing stubs are near perfect. They're juicy, tender and intermittently charred near the joints, giving the texture the delectable contrasts so many wings lack. Though the menu makes reference to a sauce choice--Bourbon Street hot or Bourbon Street honey barbecue--we were never queried for a selection. No matter. These wings need no sauce.
St. Louis Blues BBQ pork rib platter in honey barbecue sauce is a slab of juicy, chewy and lean meat racked with curved bones.
Then there's the stage. It's a strange space. The backdrop is a bank of four television monitors rising horizontally in a high narrow black cabinet. Two stations are piped through the bank: the first and third monitors broadcasting a basketball game, and the second and fourth flickering ESPN SportsCenter. Blue, green and red light bulbs are strategically screwed into the light fixtures in the ceiling, creating a stage-lighting illusion for pennies on the dollar.
In front of this assembles the talent. Thursday is "neo soul open mike" night at The Cosmo, a thing with poetry and songs that is more fun than an all-helium karaoke bar. A quartet provides the sonic backdrop. A long table of guests in front of the stage celebrates a wedding anniversary. A studious bespectacled gentleman mounts the stage and grabs the mike. He sings a number called "Baby Doll" to a seated woman in an aquamarine dress. He belts it like a pro, with controlled intonation rendered warm and expressive with precise vibrato. He finishes the song and hands the mike to a man in a beret who renders the same song in rap.
Then the guy in spectacles charges the stage and forces the pianist to surrender his keyboard. He bangs out and sings Leon Russell's "A Song for You." While this may all sound trite, it is not. The crowd crackles. Diners who had just come to the place for a slosh and a bite are taken in, blithering with the same enthusiasm as the anniversary celebrants. Catcalls and guffaws bounce around the room. Stage fright is conquered.
The poets mount the stage. They're mostly women, bringing with them sheets of paper that are wrinkled, torn and streaked with ink runs, or neatly typed and preserved in plastic sleeves. They spit wit on the burns of past flames and the inanities of souring affairs. "I'm so glad it's over," shrieks one woman from a piece of lined notebook paper. Another woman, who seems to be managing stage traffic, reads a poem titled (apparently) "This." Through vocal inflection, word placement and verse stress, she turns the pronoun into a weighty metaphor: an instrument of anger, a pulsing infatuation burst, a prodding tease of sexual innuendo.
After this flourish, she recaptures the mike and belatedly announces the neo soul open mike rules. "No profanity or graphic sexual content out of respect for both the young and old among us," she says. "Please be creative with all references to lovemaking." Who would have thought nightclub stagecraft could become badass simply by skirting mainstream vulgarity? Now, badass that menu. 620 W. Main St., Garland, 972-205-0808. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. $-$$
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