The secret is out. I've been coming to Mosaic CafAc for years and have never waited for a table, until now. Last week my party of four waited for 20 minutes at lunch. It seems my little neighborhood cafe has become the hottest thing since the opening of Can Can.
But truly, it didn't happen overnight. It's been a long an
d winding road for Mosaic since its start in Carytown 15 years ago. From day one the menu has focused on healthy California-Mediterranean cuisine, and that hasn't changed. But while Mosaic began as a small, counter-service lunch spot, it's gradually climbed the service spectrum. It moved to the River Road shopping center and opened outposts in Suffolk and Charleston, S.C. After a complete renovation in May, including a bar and a switch to full table service, Mosaic has officially graduated from casual cafe to real restaurant.
The renovation stayed true to the name, with artsy touches such as colorful glass fixtures on the walls and ceiling. The grassy green hues throughout are a refreshing change from the sea of neutrals that seem to be the norm. Interesting textures pop up in unexpected places — a bamboo pedestal hiding beneath a hammered copper table top, and the bubbling rock wall that has moved outside, much to the delight of little diners.
All of this has increased traffic flow as intended, but there are downsides. The new dining room feels a bit cramped when the house is full. Squeezing in and out of some spots requires yoga moves, and the din at lunchtime is loud.
One thing that didn't change with the renovation was the makeup of the menu. Lunch and dinner options still overlap a good deal, with a similar selection of salads, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas and burgers, mostly less than $10. The shrimp and grits rightfully remains the star of the entrAce show, with chicken andouille sausage and hefty shrimp held together with a rich smoked gouda cream sauce. The crispy salmon also is well-executed, and the Mykonos pizza keeps a remarkably crispy crust considering the pile of veggies, shrimp and feta weighing it down.
For those ultimate gouda grilled-cheese lovers, it's still here in all its gooey glory. Other notable sandwiches include the Aegean chicken pita and the Tuscan veggie roller. Anything with the smoked-gouda pimento cheese is a good bet.
For the calorie counters, the fit 400 sautAces offer a selection of entrAces with fewer than 400 calories. The sesame-ginger chicken is fresh and flavorful, but tastes more of soy sauce than sesame or ginger. The modest portion is an unfortunate contrast to the bacon-blue Angus burger also occupying our table. For the combo of bacon, blue cheese and horseradish aioli on a juicy half-pounder, I'll fall on the calorie sword any day.
At brunch, the four-cheese egg strata and Greek omelet both have nice flavors but are disappointingly overcooked. Thankfully I have the pecan sugar bacon to console me.
While there are plenty of fine choices in the salad lineup, Mosaic suffers from the same kitchen-sink syndrome as other spots: too many ingredients for one small bowl of greens to handle. As one of my teachers in cooking school used to say, less is more, people. Tomatoes don't belong in every salad, nor do dried cranberries or sprouts. But the dressings are homemade, and the Thai chili vinaigrette is outstanding.
If you're feeling overly virtuous after your Santa Barbara chopped salad, the towering slices of cake and muffin-sized cookies are a good antidote. The hummingbird cake doesn't have the fresh fruit flavors I hope for, but the derby pie, a concoction of chocolate, caramel and pecans, is pure bliss. Likewise, the peanut-butter cake might inspire one to do away with the fork and eat it by the fistful.
Mosaic still serves consistently solid and satisfying food, with just a few exceptions. I had hoped for a little shake-up on the menu to go along with the pretty new digs. But that wasn't the goal of the renovation, and, apparently, no one seems to mind. S
Mosaic CafAc & Catering $
6229A River Road
River Road Shopping Center
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sunday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.