The New York Times ran one of their 36 hours in a town piece on Sarasota recently, and, by coincidence, chose for their Saturday night dinner a restaurant the Herald-Tribune had already scheduled for review. That restaurant was Mozaic, an excellent choice because it is one of the area’s best.
Since it opened several years ago, Mozaic, under the guidance of Chef Dylan Elhajoui, has consistently offered a smart, well-crafted menu that cruises the Mediterranean rim, rather like a culinary Radio Tarifa.
The stylish setting matches the cooking. Pumpkin and apple green walls rise to the high black ceiling, making the main dining room both cheerful and spacious. Brightly colored paintings add to the design. White-napped tables allow generous space between them, and thickly upholstered chairs provide ample comfort.
The amuse bouche, those little palate ticklers that are a standard at Michelin-starred restaurants, have not shown up locally of late. So it’s a delight to report encountering not one but two at Mozaic. The first offered a velvety blend of apple and crème fraîche, a very soothing and delicate combination. Next, we were treated to a seafood custard that sparkled in both conception and execution, with just a hint of cardamom hovering in the background. Together the two stimulated our expectations for the regular courses.
Catalan Grilled Quail ($15) showed why this under-used fowl needs a place on more menus. Tasting of the grill with just a whiff of smoke, the quail sat on a bed of bacon-studded lentils. The darkish quail meat, sweet and moist, paired well with the lentils, which happened to be cooked to perfection, not mushy like they sometimes are, but firm and slightly yielding when bitten into.
Gnocchi with Butternut Squash ($9) wedded the two ingredients together surprisingly well, the gnocchi like soft little pillows scattered among the bright orange of the squash. As well as appealing visually, the dish worked more than well at the taste level, providing a very full, satisfying flavor.
In another nice touch, we then received a palate cleanser, a sorbet of black cherry and balsamic vinegar presented in a piece of crystal shaped like a flower. The scoop of sorbet nestled among he crystal petals and, as it melted, a thin stream of the dark red juice trickled down the clear hollow stem. Delightful.
Palates cleansed, we were able to turn our attention to the main courses. Having gone vegetarian with the appetizers, I decided to continue the trend with the Seven Vegetable Cous Cous ($20), a steaming dish of the granular pasta — a tip of the hat to Mozaic’s North African influences — stuffed full with such ingredients as beet, red pepper, chick peas and black olives. Those not pursuing vegetarianism can augment the dish with a side order of Merguez ($9) — made in-house I believe — that spicy sausage traditionally served with cous cous. I’ve had merguez a lot in France, and this was as good as any I’ve had there.
Cornish Game Hen ($18) made a natural segue to the quail. More full-flavored than chicken, the hen was also succulent and able to bear an accompanying diablo sauce, whose peppery taste enlivened the entire dish.
Whimsically named after southern European towns — Marseille, Napoli and such — Mozaic’s desserts are well worth an after-dinner stay. The Tarifa ($8) will appeal to ardent chocolate lovers, a pot de crème of very dark, espresso-flavored chocolate that came with a delicate financier, an almost pastry-like cake whose suggestions of cardamom helped it earn its exotic name. The Provence, too, embodied its name, a shimmering panna cotta scented with lavender. It’s worth noting, too, that I couldn’t order the Tangier, a pear and walnut cake, because it had run out. By the time we were ready to leave, however, a to-go order, warm from the oven arrived at our table gratis.
That’s a sign of class and typical of Mozaic at all levels, a restaurant that very much wants diners to depart with a smile on their face, which we most certainly did.