Restaurant Review: CoZara

Will CoZara’s struggles to find balance result in a winning izakaya for University City?


Photos by Courtney Apple

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.

If restaurants are like fishermen, constantly angling for customers, CoZara is that guy at the end of the pier who keeps changing his bait as fast as he can reel in the line.Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka’s sophomore effort (following his eponymous sushi den in Rittenhouse Square) opened with a 60-item menu patterned after a Japanese izakaya. Small plates were grouped into nine categories, with sushi notable for its absence. A few weeks later, CoZara added lunch: rice bowls, ramen, and gluey alt-burritos whose delicate soy-paper wrappers struggled to contain heavy cargoes of soggy rice entombing the likes of teriyaki salmon or BBQ eel. Then the dinner menu, which had already been tweaked, changed again, shrinking by about half in response to what chef de cuisine Chris Paulikas called the “deer-in-the-headlights look” of customers who found the original one “ominous.”

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

CoZara [Foobooz]

This review by Trey Popp will be published in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.