Back in 1980, Tony Award–winning actor Jim Dale caused a sensation nightly on Broadway in Barnum, a musical based on the life of legendary circus impresario P. T. Barnum. During one production number, Dale would ascend to a tightrope suspended high above the stage and thrill audiences as he deftly sang and traversed the high wire without a net. It was a publicist’s dream, and the kind of theatrics that had rarely been seen on the Great White Way. Barnum—renowned as the king of hype—would have relished the feat.
At the restaurant Mosaic in St. James, co-owners and co-chefs Jonathan Contes and Tate Morris have staged a nightly culinary high-wire act for nearly a decade. With none of the bluster typically associated with P. T. Barnum, Contes refers to their efforts as “dinner and a show.”
Yet, there is nothing on Long Island that quite comes close to the theatrics one experiences at Mosaic. Every Tuesday through Saturday, Contes and Morris offer a five-course chef’s tasting, which springs from their imaginations that day and changes nightly. The team never repeats a dish, so on whatever night you choose to dine, you will experience a wholly original, one-time gastronomic event. Like the high-wire performer, Contes and Morris draw on skill, intuition, courage and pure creative adrenaline to stage a night of exhilarating culinary theater.
At the restaurant Mosaic in St. James, co-owners and co-chefs Jonathan Contes and Tate Morris have staged a nightly culinary high-wire act for nearly a decade.
Renouncing a conventional menu might make even the most confident of chefs and patrons uncomfortable, but Contes has been living in the moment since he first set foot in a professional kitchen. With no formal training, he negotiated his first kitchen position with chef Guy Reuge at Mirabelle Restaurant when it was also in St. James. There, Contes met Morris, and eventually the two decided to strike out on their own, opening Mosaic in November 2005. Initially, the concept was more conventional, before a proclivity for culinary impulsiveness emerged.
“When we first opened, we had very seasonal menus that changed every two or three months,” says Contes. “But, I started getting a little bored with that and the whole idea of even having a menu.” Then, they began revising the menu every two weeks, and finally landed on their one-of-kind show.
“It keeps it exciting,” says Contes. “There are some restaurants that don’t change their menu, and I feel like that has to be the most boring thing in the world ever. It takes the freshness out of it, and it takes the challenge out if it.”
Today, spontaneity and creativity are the main event at Mosaic. “It’s like a show you put on and the script changes every day,” says Contes. The process begins to percolate during daily visits to the market, where the chefs find out what ingredients are available. They’ll visit a local butcher and fish purveyor; in the summer season, the restaurant receives a regular share of produce from the Hamlet Organic Garden in Brookhaven.
“We have stuff to start twisting our minds around and start to design a menu,” Contes says, but adds they often have no idea what the night’s menu will look like until they get into the kitchen.
“I always equate what we do here to jazz,” says Contes. “It’s far more improvisational.”
Still, the team’s flair for culinary derring-do is grounded in the fundamentals. “We have a good grasp of what makes sense and how to layer flavors and choose the direction of a dish,” says Contes.
The dining room is a sophisticated, yet intimate playground—decorated with bold vertical stripes of earth tones, gold and deep blue—that seats about 30 people. A wood-paneled bar hugs the back corner of the room where staff mixes larger-than-life martinis and other high-concept cocktails like the Lawn Doctor (arugula-infused vodka, ginger-lemongrass syrup, lemon, black pepper) or Cherry Cola Sangria (merlot, Bing cherry, Heering cherry liqueur, Coca-Cola). Just beyond, a small pass-through window reveals a glimpse of the kitchen where Contes and Morris collaborate and create.
The team of young, attractive servers thrive on the sense of fun and element of surprise in the dining room. There is no hint of what’s to come until a dish is placed on the table, and they seem genuinely delighted to present the next fanciful creation.
Each plate is a stunning composition adroitly juggling a complex mix of flavor, color, texture and dimension with a playful sense of calculated risk. Chefs Contes and Morris soar with dramatic contrasts of the traditional and the startling. Contes calls it “a little mind-bending as far as some of the flavors and components go.” On the night of our visit, the tasting began with creamy, smoked bell pepper bisque accented with mozzarella-pesto crostini, spinach and saffron and garnished with olives and sweet grapes that popped against the soup’s savory flavors. Caraway-grilled shrimp sat on a colorful bed of romaine, chicories and red bliss potatoes and was matched with rich butterscotch roasted garlic walnuts, Gouda and sage. Roasted salmon fillet was dressed with shaved Brussels sprouts, salty blue cheese, pancetta, mushroom, cranberry and toasted orecchiette pasta. Grilled New York strip steak was paired with barbecued brie polenta, toasted almond haricots verts, kumquat, maple and creamy cucumber horseradish. The dessert plate was a whimsical landscape of cherry Grand Marnier panna cotta, rice pudding with banana, a fudgy brownie cube and an ice cream chipwich.
Amplifying the spectacle is Mosaic’s extensive wine selection, which lists some 300 choices that push patrons out of their cabernet comfort zones with revelatory results.
“Our wine list is extensive and it’s rather eclectic,” says Contes. “We like the earth, we like a little funk, leaner is better, and we appreciate acidity. We like things with age on them and we like things that are offbeat.”
Patrons may order wine pairings to accompany the dinner, starting at $30 per person. Think of it as the spine-tingling soundtrack that accompanies the high-wire act. During our visit, our tasting was expertly matched with one sublime glass after another—a chardonnay-viognier blend from the Veneto, Italy; a wine made from the Okuzgozu grape from Turkey; a peppery pinot noir—dubbed Hooked—from Baden, Germany; a full-bodied wine from 100 percent plavina grapes from Croatia; a white wine from Slovenia made from the zelen grape. Our server provided the rich backstory for each glass with unbridled enthusiasm.
“Our goal is to show people that food can be different and drink can be different,” says Contes, who adds he’s never tempted to repeat a dish, and celebrates each new creation with an eye toward tomorrow’s challenge. “We’ll say, this one was really good, but we’ll make something different, or better next time.”
He thinks Mosaic patrons agree and embrace the extemporaneous nature of the adventure. “I feel like our clientele has completely subscribed and adapted to that theory,” says Contes. “They are fearless in the sense that the trust is 100 percent there.”