t's hard to miss the physical growth of Virginia Commonwealth University, which has revised West Broad Street and is creeping across Belvidere toward The Jefferson Hotel.
What's not quite as obvious, but just as certain a sign of the maturation of VCU from a commuter college to a vibrant, first-rate university, is the quality and variety of the cuisine available to students, faculty and visitors.
During the early years, the food options were pretty much limited to sandwich and pizza joints, along with the occasional sit-down Asian and vegetarian restaurant. These days, however, cosmopolitan choices reflecting the rich diversity of the university community include Ethiopian, Brazilian, Jamaican, Vietnamese, Thai and, the latest entry, Moroccan.
Cous Cous, which opened in late July in a space formerly occupied by Chuggers, a traditional college bar off the lobby of the privately owned Chesterfield apartment building, is a spinoff from the popular Sticky Rice, a Pan-Asian place farther west in the Fan.
Cous Cous' décor, designed by co-owner John Yamashita, a former VCU art student, sets the proper mood with bejeweled tapestries, mirrors, gold drapes, red walls with stenciled leaves, overhead fans, lanterns and tile floors.
A bonus in the middle of the traffic-clogged campus is limited free parking at the side of the building.
Not to be outdone by Sticky Rice's hip reputation, Cous Cous woos hipsters with Tuesday-night specials advertised on MySpace.com, including speed-dating every other Tuesday; complimentary tapas at the bar nightly; two-for-one appetizers Mondays; vegetarian specials Wednesdays; and half-price sangria Sunday nights.
The challenge at Cous Cous is to construct a menu reasonable enough for students yet sophisticated enough to draw in their parents and professors.
Partners Yamashita, Jason Henry and Al Copeland manage that by offering nearly two dozen small plates, costing $7 to $9, plus half a dozen entrees in the $17 to $27 range.
As prepared by chef Charlie Williams, formerly of Stella's, two kinds of smaller dishes called familia meze and tagines provide not only better value three or four shared dishes are enough for two people but also better taste.
The tagines are stewed meats served in earthenware bowls, with pork shank, chicken and lamb the everyday meat of Morocco cooked until they are falling-off-the-bone tender and mixed with vegetables and couscous, the iconic granular semolina that symbolizes the cuisine of North Africa.
Among the appetizers, standouts are Manchego cheese fritters with a mango coulis; cheese-stuffed broiled cremini mushrooms; and meatballs (kefka) of lamb, beef and pork in a chunky tomato sauce.
An ample portion of home-cut fries, accompanied by curry dipping sauce, is excellent as either a meze or a side dish to an entrée.
Soups include a thick lentil and a harira with braised lamb and rice. Pitas come with a choice of chicken, pork or falafel (chickpea croquettes), and the addition of hummus (mashed chickpeas), tabbouleh (bulgur wheat salad) or babaghanoush (pureed eggplant), each mixed with chopped tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, olive oil and lemon juice.
Among the entrees, a quarter chicken ($18) slow-cooked and topped with oven-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms and a lentil demi-glaze was satisfying, while the grilled rack of lamb ($27) lacked moistness save for a dollop of apricot mint chutney.
All desserts are made in-house. There is the usual baklava and flan, but for something different, try the cold poached pear over cinnamon couscous with chunks of heated pomegranate. The combination is guaranteed to put you in a holiday mood.
Cous Cous is still finding its moorings; the food, bar and service were uneven. Mussels in a white-wine garlic broth came out chewy, perhaps the result of not being fresh (but have been removed from the new seasonal menu). A carafe of sangria had not been sufficiently fermented to blend the red wine, apricot brandy and chunks of fruit. After a tasting by the bartender and waitress, a second carafe passed the test.
Moroccan food relies heavily on aromatic spices such as cumin, coriander, saffron and paprika, which were in sparse evidence in many of the dishes. They may have been subdued by a cloud of cigarette smoke that drifts from the bar into the high-ceilinged, 60-seat dining area. On one visit, the smoke was so overpowering that we left without eating. A second time it permeated our food and clothing, but we survived; while on a third visit the odor was minimal.
Manager Robin Burrows said Sunday dinner may soon be smoke-free. Ironically, as you leave the dining room, the hallway boasts a "no smoking" sign. S
Cous Cous $$
900 W. Franklin St.
Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, 5-11 p.m. (bar until 2 a.m.)