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Pieces of Ate

Restaurant owner and chef Deborah Knight makes food look like art at Mosaic.
Erik Guzowski

Like the art style for which it's named, Mosaic restaurant is a complicated creation, composed of many tiny details to form an elaborate whole. The result is a visual dazzler, from the restaurant's sleek interior design to its menu reading like a voyage around the world. Yet just like a mosaic, this upscale new eatery's beauty remains on the surface, small glittering chips that when pried away leave emptiness and an uninspired foundation.

All the elements for a first-class culinary portrait are there. The package is pretty, the plates appealing and the menu concept refreshing. Plus, Mosaic knows it niche, reigning over an under-served area flush with upper-income residents and resort visitors who will pay $28 for a petite portion of chicken with preserved lemon, cracked green olives and saffron rice (the Four Seasons is just down the street).

Yet there's been little turnout for this gourmet gallery showing. Since opening in July, Mosaic's primary customers have been other local chefs, with our top names spotted prowling the restaurant, sniffing suspiciously around its luxe environs while trying to figure out how the place will fit into our highly competitive collection of high-class eateries.

Perhaps the damp reception is partly because of Mosaic's summertime opening. Perhaps it's partly because of a soft economy going softer. Likely it's something less obvious, something that Mosaic is lacking. Call it the je ne sais quois that gives an independent eatery its heart and soul. Chalk it up to the love we're supposed to feel as soon as we pass the threshold. It's not there. In its infancy, Mosaic is almost too pretty, too stiff and too formulaic to be great art. What this place needs is some of the whimsy that makes a destination experience memorable: the distinctive stamp of a chef whose personality is every bit as important an ingredient as anything on the menu.

The chef-owner of Mosaic is Deborah Knight, yet we'd never know there was a single artist in residence. She's not a welcoming character at the front door, or a white-toqued spirit who stops by tables to schmooze (in fact, it's hard to get anyone's attention as we linger in the foyer). She's invisible on the menu, too, with no true signature dishes or hints that we're anywhere other than another classic resort restaurant or tony chain. Nothing gives us that feeling that makes a chef-owned restaurant so enthralling: that we're part of the dream. There's a vague feeling of déjà vu with many of the dishes and a feeling that Knight is holding back.

A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Knight trained at Scottsdale's former 8700 Restaurant and the Miraval Health and Wellness Spa in Tucson. Other stints have included a position as sous-chef at Colorado's Zagat-award-winning European Cafe, and a private catering business. Staff seemingly outnumber guests, including a sous chef, pastry chef, certified Sommelier and a manager well known in the Valley for his upscale affiliations.

There's some effort made at infusing unusual character in the decor: Mosaic showcases the creations of Valley artists on its cream-colored and white-block walls. Art's for sale, but in a friendly touch, Knight doesn't deduct commission. Design, including a dramatic mosaic logo embedded in the entry floor, is from Phoenix native Kathy Parks and Gay Cutter. And there's a trio floor plan designed to appeal to everyone, with a formal, Biltmore-reminiscent room lined with cherrywood wine cabinets; a more casual, airy dining salon; and a clubby barroom that begs to be populated by distinguished gents puffing on cigars. Yet the overall effect is cold, overly coordinated and almost unwelcoming.

The menu seduces like an all-out global orgy, with 30-plus dishes spread over four courses, plus three separate tasting menus (including vegetarian), but it fails to come together. Descriptions alone make me ravenous and restless: exotic mushroom terrine with lightly pickled wakame (Asian) sea vegetables, or grilled tenderloin of rabbit with sprouts-shoots salad, parsnip-carrot puree and roasted shallot vinaigrette. While dishes keep our attention through every precious bite, ultimately the anticipated spark fails to ignite. Note: "Precious"-dishes here are truly dainty. Unfortunately, they are without the boisterous character of other small-portioned offerings such as those served at Gregory's World Bistro and Vincent Guerithault on Camelback, and it's not uncommon to leave Mosaic vaguely unsatisfied after a three-course meal. Better, but expensive at $85, is the Mosaic tasting, which is five courses plus an intermezzo, and $30 extra for paired wines.

A welcoming platter of bread does make a fine first showing, featuring fat cubes of buttery garlic glistening on biscuit-like pillows, or wonderfully salty onion focaccia. Sometimes, the chef sends out an amuse -- perhaps a demitasse of gazpacho, a saucer of chilled avocado cream soup or an elfin dish of mandarin orange segments, purple onion curls and pickle sprinkled with dill in a tart olive-sherry dressing.

Some starters shine. Clever construction (it looks like a little Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired cabin of crisscrossed Lincoln Logs) makes for a fun cold white asparagus salad. The tidy pile comes sprinkled with chopped red and yellow bell peppers, red and yellow micro-cherry tomatoes, field greens and a splash of fiery harissa (red chile) vinaigrette that eats into the core of the asparagus spears.

Smoked salmon and sturgeon also spark visual interest, with a burrito-like bundling of cucumber slivers. It's tucked alongside red ginger, a vinegary nest of daikon and carrot and brush strokes of heat-licking wasabi cream, and the flavors play nicely together. But the wrap's barely a few bites for $16.

Other appetizers come across as more paint-by-the-numbers: sugar-cane prawns are three hefty grilled shrimp on wooden skewers, but not terribly exciting under a sleepy tamarind glaze with chopped red pepper and mango over a miniature polenta cake. Five-spice quail is a one-dimensional canvas of dark, gamy bird on a muted pile of roasted pea shoots moistened with a spritz of cherry-toned hibiscus tea sauce. The curry coat in scallops has gone missing, the seafood tumbled over jasmine rice with a bouquet of Chinese long beans. And a butter lettuce salad is thoroughly average, tossed with mixed tomatoes, radish, chervil, mushrooms and cheese in a gutless mustard vinaigrette.

A first-course plate of duck is odd, the Muscovy breast fired to a good, meaty turn but overly complicated by a stir-fry of Chinese long beans and baby spinach plus macadamia nuts, quinoa and dots of mango-port coulis. This plate has more weird turns than a Picasso painting.

Entrees go more mainstream, strictly a meat-and-potato palette goosed with two slightly more abstract choices: grilled wild boar chop and seared loin of venison. Both game selections are excellent, varying slightly from menu descriptions when served as tasting courses. Whether stewed cranberry or strawberry rhubarb chutney, both make fine sides to peppery venison resting on wasabi mashed potatoes. And either barley timbale or Israeli couscous help out the admirably juicy boar.

A perfectly grilled tenderloin of beef is a top-notch cut gilded with smoked tomato chutney and paired with an earthy rich portabello and pleasant if predictable horseradish whipped potatoes. Pork loin also is remarkable, a fat cut capped by a crunchy coif of aromatic cardamom, almond and chopped apple over whipped potatoes, Chinese long beans and a sweet dice of cantaloupe and honeydew. If only there were more of these meats to love; a couple of ounces merely taunt our appetites.

Rack of lamb comes up short on portion size, too, and lacking much of the turbo-charged flavor of the promised garam masala (typically cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, black pepper, cloves, coriander and coconut). We've seen and tasted this dish many times before. A side of quinoa is smooth and nutty, but the menu description of dried fruit and pistachio couscous sounds much more compelling.

The salmon is another petite selection, sake-steamed in banana leaves with bok choy and quinoa on kaffir lime orange broth one evening; makrut lime and tomato broth another night. It's all good, but nothing surprises -- no electric flavors, no table-gripping spices, no toe-curling sauces to intrigue.

Desserts are comfort food, done up with just a bit of glam. Angel food cake is an airy classic, kissed with orange and drizzled with bittersweet chocolate sauce, while almond rum cake comes dressed with vanilla cream and dried cherry compote. Where are the bold strokes, the wild abandon?

Mosaic does pay attention to details: Intermezzos of exotic fruit sorbets are refreshing rests between courses, although redundant when we order the selection of sorbets as a dessert (a colorful watercolor in shades of honeydew, lemon and tangelo). Bottled water at no extra cost is classy, although damp linen towels would benefit from being warmed and/or scented.

Knight's got a good start on her craft. Certainly there's a strong audience for even this subdued food in such an elegant ambiance. To join the ranks of our true chef artists, though, she needs to toss on her beret and show some individual style with a couple of truly bold dishes. If Knight wants to go for baroque, she needs to go all the way.

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miles
Mosaic Restaurant - Closed

10600 E. Jomax Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85262

480-563-9600

www.mosaic-restaurant.com


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