It is a compliment to say that the menu at Koz Cafe and Lounge in Clearwater is all over the map. It claims a Mediterranean cuisine, which often just means Italian, maybe with a Greek salad on the side.
But Koz takes a stab at cuisines all around that sea, starting with Portugal — not technically on the Mediterranean — and continuing through Italy and Greece, nodding briefly at the Middle East and northern Africa.
But all over the map can mean something else, too. And we'll get to that.
Koz takes over the space that was briefly Cafe 13 and before that Alley Cats at the corner of McMullen-Booth and Enterprise in a strip mall that would make a pretty good food court if it were in a shopping mall. A bar dominates the entrance, with a lounge area on one side and a dining room on the other, glimmering a bit from the hammered-copper tabletops. Behind the lounge is a patio area where there is live music.
The plates glimmer a bit as well. The food is plated on large platters so artfully that you are inclined to pause and admire it when it is set before you.
Take the Moroccan steak churrasco ($14.90). Churrasco is most often associated with South American-themed restaurants where the gauchos roam from table to table with meat on huge skewers, portioning it off directly to the diner, but its roots are in Portugal and Spain.
Here, the presentation is only slightly less dramatic, with an entire skirt steak rolled and run through with a large skewer, the meat sitting on edge like a pinwheel of grilled beef. The complex "Moroccan seasonings" are prominent: Think pepper, cinnamon, coriander, cumin. While the rub takes care of the spice route, chimichurri sauce brings the herbs, bright green from the parsley, with a kick of garlic and pepper. The combination works well enough to forgive the fact that chimichurri isn't remotely Mediterranean. Call it parsley pesto and the geographic anomaly fades.
Moving east, we tried a couple of Koz's kebabs. The steak kebab ($15.90) had huge hunks of marinated beef grilled on a stick with peppers and onions, all done well enough to give the impression that impaled meat over a fire is something that they know how to do well here. Much less impressive was the seafood kebab ($15.90), where the onions and peppers were joined by shrimp and scallops. The scallops were overcooked, and the shrimp tasted entirely unfresh.
There was a hit and a miss with chicken dishes, too. The hit: the Koz chicken ($12), which is sauteed and served with a white wine and herb sauce, topped with spinach and mozzarella. The plump, juicy breast was accented well by its accoutrements. The miss: the Koz rustic rigatoni ($9.50, add $4 for grilled chicken). The chicken was tender, though showed no signs of grilling, but the pasta was not rustic, not with a heavy lemon beurre blanc sauce. Nor was the pasta rigatoni. It was penne. It was a dish that needed editing. The lemon-butter needs to be a little lighter, but it went well with the artichokes. The feta worked with the sun-dried tomatoes. But altogether, it was too much, the tang of the feta and the lemon-butter conflicting and weighing down the dish.
You aren't likely to find too many burgers indigenous to the Mediterranean, but you might imagine one with spinach, mushrooms and feta. At $9, it would make a decent lunch. At 10 ounces, maybe for two people.
Highlights among the appetizers were the trio of spreads ($7) and the antipasto ($8.90). The serviceware for the spreads was a long platter of pita triangles — some pieces fresher than others — crossed by another inset with three bowls. One bowl was filled with a tomato-artichoke hummus, another with smoked eggplant and a third with spicy cheese. At our table, the hummus bowl was emptied first, then the yogurty, spicy cheese mix. The antipasto was a simple plate of prosciutto, salami, cheeses, olives, breadsticks and guava paste, with a bowl of marinated mushrooms in the middle. The mushrooms are also available as a side and on the short tapas menu ($4).
Dessert is a bit of an afterthought: baklava or panna cotta, the baklava ($4.50 each) the better choice of the two.
As relevant as anything we tried at Koz is what we didn't try. On one visit, they were out of strip steak. The grouper was discontinued because prices were up. (And that meant no trying the charmoula, a North African sauce that is part of its preparation.) Scallops were taken off the menu. And on three visits, we never got to try the risotto croquettes.
It is perfectly acceptable — applaudable even — to have a menu that morphs to reflect what is available, what is seasonal and even what is economically feasible. But it would be better to actually update the menu when those changes happen, rather than inform customers that their first three choices aren't available.
Jim Webster can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.