Everything about Mosaic Café, near the IOP connector in Mt. Pleasant, feels like a '90s bubble trend, from a whimsically-designed "upscale" setting — brown tile floors, angular modern iron chairs, Venice-inspired blown glass fixtures — to white plates in many different shapes and sizes, to the plastic-covered fast food-style menu offering outdated suburbanite dishes like oriental chicken salad, gorgonzola-alfredo penne, sesame-encrusted tuna, and even a drink called the Skinny Green Apple. The original Mosaic Café and Catering opened in 1994 in Richmond, Va. and restaurants in Suffolk, Va., and Mt. Pleasant in 2004 followed. The founders had a plan: "The open kitchen and upscale atmosphere of eclectic California/Mediterranean is designed to provide healthy fare in a casual, full service environment. All aspects of the business are carefully selected to work in harmony."
To its credit, Mosaic tries hard. It serves lunch and dinner daily and brunch and "supper" on Sundays. They also cater.
Mosaic's menu seems to be born of business brainstorming, and these folks want to hit all the right notes. The lunch menu, for example, has four different pastas (plus a "pasta for two" special, or add grilled shrimp, portobello mushrooms, or grilled chicken to any) and eight Mosaic salads (and a half salad plus soup option — and nine dressing choices). There are four "fit 450 sautés" ("low in fat, high in protein, and each under 450 calories"), 14 Mosaic sandwiches (and a half sandwich plus soup or salad option), four burgers, three soups (cup or bowl), a garden salad (add chicken or shrimp), and seven sides.
Overwhelmed yet? That's just lunch. The dinner and brunch menus each offer all of the above, plus 12 or so entrées, about 10 starters and small plates at dinner, 10 or so brunch-tailored dishes at brunch, and an entirely separate monthly specials menu offered at every meal with 10 additional dishes. There's a lot to choose from, to say the least.
The first dish I had at Mosaic, a cup of Brazilian black bean soup ($3.95 cup, $5.95 bowl) from the September menu, was great, with whole flavorful black beans, chunks of smoky, meaty kielbasa sausage, and big, perfectly cooked collard green ribbons — an original remake of a dish that's been turned into a cliché a million times over.
A lunchtime Chicken Santa Barbara salad ($10.95) was good too: several big pieces of nicely grilled and seasoned chicken sitting on fresh greens of all colors, grated cheddar cheese, slivered almonds, cranberries, grated carrot, sliced bell pepper, and cucumber. It was as good as a quick chicken-centric lunch salad can be, with an appealing array of colors and a good balance of sweet, nutty, tart, and meaty. The raspberry-ranch dressing was a little much — bright pink and creamy — but I didn't need much of it with the chicken and cheese. I would have been happier with a squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, and twice the ratio of vegetables to meat.
On the sandwich front, the Charleston Chicken Roller (noted with an "M" for Mosaic favorite, $7.95) was a solid, rich sandwich with grilled chicken (perfectly cooked), smoky bacon, lots of smoked Gouda pimento cheese, raw spinach leaves, tomatoes, basil, and mustard. Again, the flavors were solid and balanced. The spinach leaves, fresh tomato, basil, and bright, tart mustard lightened the richness of the chicken, bacon, and cheese, a little. I would be happy to eat this again, but again with a bigger vegetable-to-meat/cheese ratio (Mosaic is supposed to be healthy, right?).
To cover its bases, Mosaic relegates a few healthy dishes to the "Fit 450 sautés" section of the menu. But the veggie curry ($8.95) was bland, with a few overly-thick slices of undercooked zucchini and yellow squash, overly-long strips of raw bell pepper that were hard to fit in my mouth, a handful of chickpeas, tomatoes, and ginger (which I didn't taste), all halfheartedly tossed with a nicely flavored curry sauce. I felt a little like a kid in calorie time-out, wondering if Mosaic's cooks were lost without cheese and cream.
Luckily (or unluckily, as it were), there's plenty of cheese and cream on the menu. I had hoped the shrimp and grits ($10.95, half order $5.95), offered at both brunch and dinner, would be as interesting a take on its namesake as the Brazilian black bean soup had been, but not so much. My half order was a medium-sized gratin-style bowl of rich, salty, creamy stone-ground grits topped with three or four large shrimp, a few slices of chicken andouille sausage, and a handful of diced onions and peppers that somehow managed to lend pretty good flavor to the dish. Surprising, since it was all smothered in grated cheddar cheese, then topped with that smoked gouda cream sauce. Too rich for me. Worse, it seemed like all the elements were salted independently before being combined, making for a wince-inducing salinity.
Dinner at Mosaic wasn't the best, either. The Mosaic Nachos ($7.95) were a handful of rectangular chips covered in cumin-scented (yep) ground beef, diced cucumber, tomato, and pepperoncini (a nice Greek-inspired addition), all covered with a load of melted feta and fontina. Lots of cheese on nachos is fine, but the dish sat too long after the cheese had melted, so it formed a solid, cheesy web that trapped the steamy ground beef atop the now soggy deep-fried chips, making it all hard to get through. Too bad, because I thought the Mediterranean approach to nachos was an original idea. The sesame-encrusted tuna entrée ($16.95) was passable, but again seemed like a bland relic from the '90s. The tuna was cooked nicely enough, covered with sesame seeds and set atop greens, alongside a sweet chili dipping sauce which would have been good in any other context, but somehow not right for dipping sliced tuna.
Mosaic advertises itself as "fresh, local, comfortable," and the website claims "Mosaic sources the best local ingredients (whenever possible) to create healthy, beautiful, sumptuous, and regionally focused seasonal cuisine with inspiration drawn from many different regions of the world." A conversation with a Mosaic manager confirmed that they source most of their produce locally. I wish that was obvious from the cooking; more fresh vegetables would go a long way toward balancing out all that richness.
So if you're out by the IOP connector in Mt. Pleasant and feel like a lunchtime salad or sandwich, by all means stop by Mosaic — you probably won't be disappointed. But for me, on most other occasions, I'll probably opt instead for a Charleston restaurant cooking with a little more heart and a little less marketing than Mosaic is right now.