But at the new Mosaic Bistro, Wine Bar and Mediterranean Market, the weakness of some vital parts takes a lot of attention away from the big picture. Created by the owners of the 75th Street Brewery, the Mosaic Bistro has a lot of style -- in fact, for low-key Prairie Village it's cutting edge -- both on and off the plate. Next door is a European-style market (see Mouthing Off, page 42), and after several visits, I can understand why so many friends of mine love the place almost unconditionally. (They consider it their neighborhood hangout.) It has an attractive dining room with a friendly, youthful staff. In fact, I might have been more easily seduced by its charms if a series of little irritations hadn't kept battering my enthusiasm.
It all started off well enough, once I found the restaurant's entrance, which was more obvious on the second visit because several smokers were huddled together in the cold, puffing away on cigarettes that are strictly forbidden inside, even at the bar.
"If it really wanted to be a European bistro," said my chic friend Jennifer, "they would permit smoking. In Europe, everyone smokes." Jennifer, a sleek young woman who works in the fashion trade, strolled through the dining room giving other customers the once-over before pouring herself into a chair next to mine.
"It's a pretty room," she said, admiring the glittering tilework in gold, azure, mustard and ruby. "It's a very Los Angeles kind of space, except that no one here wears decent clothes. The room is hip; the clientele is terribly square."
True enough. But it is a Prairie Village bistro, after all. During the dinner shift, the typical patron is over 40, conservatively clad and extremely well-behaved. One night I ran into a well-connected, politically active and tasteful couple I knew who raved about the place ("We eat here several nights a week") but still had their opinions about what would make the restaurant really work: "They need more comfort food," said the wife, "like meatloaf. And pasta!"
Meatloaf? Honey, this isn't the corner grill. Mercifully, instead of meatloaf, the menu has some interesting-sounding dishes, such as curry-crusted lamb loin and lobster chopped salad. And if some of its European creations -- the French cassoulet, for example -- miss the mark, I'd enthusiastically nominate others as great comfort foods: the luscious, fragrant Greek lemon chicken or the dazzling duck breast flavored with honey and cumin and served with little round blini (thick enough to be pancakes, really) of wild rice.
However, there is no comfort in the service, which ranges from arrogant to the level of Keystone Kops lunacy -- sometimes at the same meal. The haughty waiter who treated us with withering condescension during the salad course was practically groveling later in the evening, as the clock ticked on and our dinners were nowhere in sight.
"The kitchen," he stammered, "they, uh, lost a bunch of tickets."
Then off he dashed, red-faced, returning fifteen minutes later with the long-overdue food and, as an explanation, "We will buy you a dessert after dinner."
We didn't care about the dessert because the duck breast was superb and Jennifer's grilled nicoise tuna was perfect. It was a dinner almost worth the long wait. It was a weeknight, and things can go awry in a restaurant kitchen -- c'est la vie. But then it happened again the following week. Different waiter, longer wait.
At least this server was attitude-free -- in fact, sort of endearing in his innocence.
Arriving at the table with a little glass cup (it looked like a candlestick holder) filled with a salty olive tapenade, he launched into his monologue: "There are some French terms on the menu I'd like to explain to you," he said, with great solemnity. "Haricots verts means green beans. Pommes frites means french fries. A cassoulet means ..."
"It's okay," I reassured him. "We know what they mean."
We ordered an appetizer, a ball of baked, fluffy goat cheese served in a glass bowl surrounded by gnocci pasta and a fresh-tasting tomato sauce with lots of fat chunks of cooked tomato. And four stingy little toasted crusts of bread. We had to beg the server for more bread, and he brought out a wire basket that was long enough to hold an entire baguette -- but we unwrapped the black napkin inside to reveal two small crusty rolls.
Steve likes butter with his bread and grew miffed when the waiter took forever to find the two little foil-wrapped pats he finally delivered. The young man also spent way too much time blathering nonsense to his tables, including one middle-aged group of four sophisticates who later commented cruelly, "Don't you hate it when the waiter tries to be your friend?"
It was a long time -- nearly forty minutes -- between the appetizer and the arrival of our dinners, both disappointing. And lukewarm. Steve's pasta pomodoro, tossed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and pancetta, was far too salty, and most of the pieces of pancetta were absurdly fatty. Steve took a look at my gloppy bowl of cassoulet and laughed: "It's not a cassoulet, it's soup with a duck leg sticking out of it."
That leg wasn't just tough and stringy; it was sprinkled with so many bread crumbs, I thought it was Shake 'n Bake. The cassoulet had been prepared, in the style of the Languedoc region, as a thick stew laden with white beans, sausage and tomatoes, but instead of the rich flavors blending in harmony, there was only one flavor: salt. After the long wait, it was a sad anticlimax.
Suddenly, the talky waiter was a man of few words. Who could blame him? Steve, who had taken three bites of pasta and pushed the plate away, was giving him the evil eye.
Not all the chocolate profiteroles, chocolate baklava, apricot tart or spice cake in the world can sweeten the sour taste left by a dinner that's fallen embarrassingly flat. The waiter whisked the dessert tray in front of us but Steve waved it off.
As we walked out, I saw three female friends in the bar, flirting outrageously with the handsome bartender. We stopped so Steve could join them for a glass of wine and their take on the restaurant. "It's fabulous!" the trio gushed in unison. "Fabulous!"
Fabulous? Well, not yet. The pieces are all there to make the Mosaic Bistro a culinary destination point, but someone needs to pull them all together to create a work of art.