When I graduated from college and moved back to Charlotte in 2002 there was no Epicenter, no Time-Warner Arena, and no Lynx Blue Line. Ravers rolled their faces off at places like Mythos and Tonic. Have A Nice Day and Bar Charlotte lured in more than the jailbait, under-18 crowds. And Cosmos Cafe Uptown was the place for glossy young professionals and wannabes to spend that easy money so many of us saw flowing during Banktown's boom days. We used to joke you couldn't buy a woman a drink at Cosmos until you flashed a BMW or Audi logo on your key fob.
Ten years later, Cosmos Cafe Uptown has weathered the center city facelift and Great Recession well enough to maintain a second location out in Ballantyne. While the Southside lacks not for restaurants, the nightlife/club scene remains pretty anemic. At a bachelor party a couple years ago I sat in on a conversation among a rabble of my fellow twenty-somethings. They were talking about the abundance of attractive, middle-aged woman to be found on the weekends at Cosmos Cafe in Ballantyne. These guys were skilled pick-up artists. Sparkly Don Juan D-bags like you find on that Hot Chicks with Douche Bags website. They reached the 33rd Degree of Misogyny. I had been married for years by then and way out of the loop when it came to talking up women. But according to these guys Cosmos Cafe was the fertilest ground for hunting a flourishing group of ravenous crepuscular cougars. I believe they were referring to them as cougs by this point during our adventure. I still wonder who really is the meat and who is the predator in this dynamic of young men coupling with mature women.
With Cosmos Uptown a distant memory, I wasn't sure what to expect from the decor of a restaurant I'd overlooked after so many nights eating out around South Charlotte. Thinking back, coming away from our meal I thought the interior reminded me of an android strip club from some Blade Runner fan fiction. I'm not dissing Cosmos here. Blade Runner, The Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders of the Lost Ark remain my most cherished examples of the permanently-befuddled genius of American cinema that is one Harrison Ford. Above the bar, broad rectangular panels fan out like the petals of some cyberpunk sunflower with spoke-like tentacles reaching down from its position centered over the ceiling. This robot flower is diddling a suspended rack of barware. Dark woods and phosphorescent lighting casts a veiny, bluish tint across the dining room which is two-tiered job with a curved ramp that slopes along to the upper level. A rounded alcove off to one corner is called "The Tower" and it is adorned with the curtains I'd expect to find around Cersei Lannister's bedchamber. It also looks like it converts into an ideal spot for a hurried dalliance after Cosmos slips off its party dress and converts into a club.
Enough about the scene and onto the cuisine. Big Mama and I got the night started with the blue crab fondue. They season it with Old Bay which has proved time and time again it requires no adulterations or modifications or flourishes. Unlike smooth cheese fondues or a broth-like coq au vin fondue, Cosmos take on a cocktail party standard was up to snuff. There was an ample portion, thick with enough viscosity left in the melted cheese to soak into the buttery and pungent garlic toast points. It was good like that crab dip you know to expect when your rich friends host a get-together.
After letting the vodka do its voodoo, I toyed with the idea of ordering the gyro pizza but soon realized I shouldn't risk the disappointment surely to be brought by the incestuous progeny of two of my favorite meals: pizza & gyros. Steak au poivre is one of those simple, beloved dishes you find at a lot of decent restaurants. Any self-respecting chef can make it. At its most base form, you get yourself a slab of beef, season with generous lather of fresh pepper, and try not to suck all the blood out of the beef. But Papa, El Capitan, always told me, "Simple doesn't mean easy." So when I cut into my New York strip, a restrained-crust of fresh black peppercorns coating the outside, and saw it pink and tender like the flesh on the pad of your thumb, I started to get a sense of how the crew behind Cosmos operated more than one profitable restaurant and lounge business during these broke-ass times.
The garlic roasted fingerling potatoes crisped up nicely in the cast iron plate. What distinguished my meal was the blue cheese and leek fondue that I dipped every last nub of potato, residual slices of tender beef fat, and floret of sauteed broccolini into until the ramekin of cheese was empty. About this time I'm starting to think somebody has a fondue fetish at Cosmos. And I'm liking it.
About this time I remember Big Mama is sitting with me and not saying a word. She too is focused on her food. Her fork is pinning down this Southwestern chicken breast like it is about to fly of the plate. She is half-way through this pregnancy and the bird don't stand a chance. There is a load of ground chorizo pouring from between the boneless chicken breast. It smells like paprika and pepper and the scents you might catch drifting from kitchen windows along a narrow alleyway near the Old Town in some Spainish city.
Her rice is savory with a smokey kiss of heat. The remoulade-like cream sauce gets you with just the right amount of burn that doesn't force you to reach for your drink between every bit.
As we are finishing, I recognize one of the bar backs and flag him down as he goes on a run to refill the ice chests. I tell him what the guys at the bachelor party told me about Cosmos being a cougar den. He smiles and laughs, then points his thumb toward the dining room.
"All those tables back there. In about another hour or two they are all going to get put away. That's when things start to get crazy."
"How crazy?" I ask.
He just looks at me, and then off into his little happy place, and smiles. Not another word.
I didn't stick around to see how crazy things got. But judging by the gals coming in as we were going out, I could see the rumors were true. He probably does alright for himself, I thought.
And good for him. And good for Cosmos.