We here at Philadelphia magazine decided last month to start debuting restaurant reviews early on Foobooz. We had reasons. And we discussed them here. Welcome to the new world.
Ominous is a strong word. I’d reserve it for the shark cartilage I sampled four weeks into CoZara’s run, which, frankly, made me think of toothpicks macerated in baitfish. Props to Tanaka for challenging University City diners with that “izakaya classic,” but some tastes are more easily acquired than others.
Yet during my first dinner (which was dogged by missing serving utensils and smudged glassware), I’m afraid I didn’t acquire many. Wasabi leaves gave ceviche-style octopus a slow, steady burn, but the flesh was rubbery. The spicy red miso sauce slathering brussels sprouts (in late May?) was gloopy and cloying. Broiled yellowtail collar was underseasoned and a little fishy. Plenty of dishes were fine—fried smelts, pork belly with ponzu sauce and a scallion/ginger garnish, tempura-dusted soft-shell shrimp—but the only real standouts were some bracing wasabi shumai dumplings and a sesame-dressed soba salad crunched up with Asian pear and jalapeño.
A pair of middling lunches didn’t win me over, either. But then CoZara finally found a way to set its hook in my cheek: happy hour! Two-dollar Sly Foxes, saketinis (including a stiff, bewitchingly thyme-scented version featuring a dry raspberry sake) and snacks justify that exclamation point. They certainly amplified my enjoyment—which makes sense, given that foremost, izakayas are drinking spots. Paulikas’s simple griddled rice balls and crisp-edged, sweet fall-off-the bone chicken wings were my faves. But I was happy to snack more exotically (sun-dried mackerel spiked with a slurry of red radish and yuzu juice, confit baby octopuses with heirloom tomatoes) as I graduated to the upper echelons of CoZara’s drink list, an adventurous mix of high-end Hitachino drafts and sake by the bottle, can and glass cup.
CoZara is still a ways from finding the sweet spot, but it’s finally jiggling the line in the right direction.
1.5 stars out of 4 – Fair to Good
This review by Trey Popp will be published in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.