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Mosaic review: Eclectic tasting menus remain the draw at renovated restaurant in St. James

Serving up a five course meal without ever serving the same dish twice - one can expect the unexpected at Eat Mosiac in St. James.  (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

It's 6:30 on a recent evening, and chef Jonathan Contes is standing in the alluring new bar of Mosaic in a Cubs cap, shorts and an apron. We are the only guests in a place that is otherwise deserted. “We’re about to get really busy,” said Contes. I worry after him for a second: I hope it's not just a wishful affirmation.

But no one seems too concerned. The bartender slides over a fuchsia drink he’s created that day: vodka, green chartreuse, lime and house grenadine, garnished with rosemary. It's delicious. A few sips in and, as if on cue, diners begin pouring in, and Mosaic becomes really loud, really fast.

Over the last 13 years, Contes and his partner, chef Tate Morris, have built a devoted following for a five-course tasting menu that changes every evening. The pair met while working with chef Guy Reuge at Mirabelle; after opening Mosaic (technically called eatMosaic), they soon ditched a la carte menus to focus five nightly dishes on things they’d pick up at their fishmonger (Setauket Seafood), butcher (Mercep Bros.) and local farms each day. The tasting menu is neither printed nor presented, so diners don’t know what they’re in for until dishes hit the table. And there is no prevailing cuisine: Dishes can bounce from Mexico to Southeast Asia to "Jewish grandmother," as Contes says, or all of those in the space of one course.

The adventurous (and trusting) eaters who adore Mosaic had to do without their fix this summer when Contes and Tate closed the place to expand. The renovation, which claimed a vacant space next door, added a fuller bar and about 10 more seats overall, as well as a spare but modern luster to the cozy dining room. 

Once seated at a cozy corner banquette, Contes (who seems to work both front and back of the house) asks: Do we have any restrictions? And, how do we prefer our meat cooked? Then he plunks down some crusty sourdough baked by Pain D’Avignon in Queens. “Don’t eat too much,” he warns, but it’s hard not to; it’s awhile before we see the first course. Pacing is languid at Mosaic; a meal can easily takes two hours. A server will suggest wine or beer during the long intervals between courses, and both are hard to resist because the selection is eclectic (this is an oasis for off-the-beaten-path wines, and the wine pairing is pitch perfect).

Eventually, our first course arrived: A coil of raw opah, a meaty fish, in a tepid caramelized-onion broth laced with grapefruit and fringed with curry crema, minced almonds and more grapefruit. Though billed as crudo, it tasted more like a pan-Asian French-onion soup. 

That plate was a template for much that followed: Tons of side plating, artful smears, disparate parts harmonizing in offbeat ways. The soup of another night embodied all of that: A tuft of kielbasa, broccoli, black truffles and cubes of smoked Cheddar in and around the rim of a bowl, over which Contes poured broccoli-potato broth for a braid of flavor that vacillated from smoky to creamy to vegetal.

Some compositions resemble mini terrariums, such as a dismantled salad of arugula, peak-season tomato, wayward cubes of mozzarella and crostini with fresh ricotta cheese oozing down its sides; their kinship was broken only by a tough spear of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. On another night, the second course was overburdened: Panko-coated fried shrimp crowding a robust onion broth, with singed cauliflower, curry crème fraîche, black-olive pesto, ginger-marinated tomato, dots of blue cheese, grapefruit … there can be a lot going on.

Taco-tostada hybrids were a recurrent theme, both times velvety braised pork shoulder spooned over sodden but tasty house tortillas with, alternately, pigeon peas or queso or stewed zucchini. Some  juxtapositions generate bizarre frisson, such as an otherwise excellent seared strip steak atop roasted sweet potatoes and chick peas; a centerpiece ribbon of powerful bell-pepper ketchup, though, made each bite of steak taste like burger. Across the plate, some feta and a broccoli floret were about as simpatico as they sound.

Desserts are deconstructed, with something for every taste: One night, a bowl of melon-berry "soup" was flanked by a coconut-cream rice pudding to one side and, on the other, a molten chocolate-hazelnut cookie riding an underbelly of raspberry, squishy and indulgent. Another night, those cookies reappeared alongside a silken maple panna cotta (paired with Lambrusco) that ended the meal on a soothing note.

Eating at Mosaic feels a little like going to the theater: There’s suspense, surprise, dramatic personae and occasional enchantment. You feel cared for by a crew that genuinely wants you to have a good time. And despite the roller coaster of a meal, the charm factor will linger long after you've walked out the door.

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