By jaynemeth March 16, 2011

(2009) In mid-December, a superb little restaurant and wine bar debuted quietly on Main Street in downtown Sarasota. Those foodies whose radar was working (count international cooking teacher Giuliano Hazan among them) enjoyed a rare treat: a table at a moment’s notice at one of the best new restaurants to open here in recent memory.

It’s called MoZaic, and it’s a knockout. It didn’t just open—finally, after months of enticing “open soon” announcements—it exploded onto the local dining scene full-blown and claimed a place on our “A” list after barely a week in business. That an ambitious venture like this could perform flawlessly without benefit of a lengthy shakedown cruise speaks volumes about its two owners and general manager/sommelier.

The jazzy, redesigned double-decker space MoZaic puts to such splendid use once was occupied by Cru, a wine bar that never really found its legs. Cru was owned by John Anderson, who also owned Pastry Art a little further east along Main. His pastry chef at the latter was a French Moroccan wizard by the name of Dylan Elhajoui. Then Anderson sold Pastry Art, closed Cru and, with his new partner, none other than chef Elhajoui, created MoZaic. They added Ken Kuiken in the manager/wine maven slot, scored a Wine Spectator award on the strength of a wonderfully idiosyncratic cellar list, recruited a thoroughly professional wait staff and opened just before Christmas. Sarasota’s savviest restaurant goers could not have asked for a better gift.

Make no mistake: Chef Elhajoui’s subtle, supremely harmonious blend of Mediterranean cuisines, executed with French flair, is the star at MoZaic and the primary reason to make a reservation. But the enterprise wouldn’t work so beautifully without Anderson to manage the finances, the knowledgeable wait staff to guide diners through the menu and deliver the goods with style, and Kuiken up front to charm the guests and offer sagacious advice on wine. Everything has to mesh for a restaurant to emerge as more than the sum of its parts.

We paid our first visit to MoZaic little more than a week after its soft opening and were prepared to cut the place some slack if things hadn’t quite gelled. We needn’t have worried, of course, but we didn’t know that then. Just to be sure our first evening there wasn’t some sort of culinary beginner’s luck, we returned a week later and again were knocked out.

We began that first visit at the bar on the ground floor, which also accommodates a few tables and the kitchen, then moved upstairs for dinner. A soaring two-story space with windows high and low greets guests, and then the open mezzanine begins. The decor, executed in peaceful greens and invigorating reds and oranges punctuated by well-chosen modern art, sets the stage for the chef’s adventurous essays in culinary fusion. At the bar we were delighted to find among the many wines available by the glass Gruet Brut NV, a methode champenoise sparkler produced by a French house transplanted to New Mexico. This is one of America’s most undervalued wines and testifies to Kuiken’s credentials as sommelier.

One more word about wines before we move upstairs and sample the food. Not only is the by-the-glass list as admirable as the bottle list, it also offers many three-ounce tasting pours in addition to the standard six-ounce measure. Toss in five sakes and some interesting examples of the brewer’s art, and even a hardcore martini drinker like me won’t miss the Grey Goose in the least.

First to table comes a complimentary amuse bouche that changes with the chef’s mood. On our first visit it was a morsel of impeccable blue crab wrapped in a thin slice of radish; on our second, miniature puff pastry stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and black truffle. Very different but both diamond-bright palate bracers.

After the crab bite, Colette chose to start with wild mushroom raviolis complemented by the lightest imaginable artichoke-scented sauce, garnished with fresh asparagus spears, seated on a dab of French lentils and splashed with tomato confetti ($8). The angelic choir was tuning up. I was no less fortunate in my choice of escargots bathed in a creamy champagne sauce savory with shallot and counterpointed by bits of hazelnut and snipped thyme ($9). This is the way to treat snails!

For her main event Colette stuck with the asparagus and artichoke agenda she’d initiated with the appetizer. This time, the pair was yoked in the service of a lovely rare roasted duck breast, its crisp and greaseless skin subtly scented with anise and served atop little cakes of polenta rich with goat cheese ($26). Being greedy, I chose a dish that brought together three very different tastes that chef Elhajoui coaxed into singing in sweet harmony. It starred sliced duck breast, two sumptuous little lamb chops and a beautiful and delicate white dome of blue-crab flan, the pitch-perfect trio accompanied by a dollop of gratin potatoes ($32). This, friends, is what an oven is for.

The fireworks continued into the dessert course. From a list of eight creations named after famous Mediterranean locales, I chose Napoli, a molten chocolate cake flavored with Frangelico, lightly sauced in a mango coulis and raised further above the ordinary with a scoop of gianduja, the sweet chocolate and hazelnut paste confection, chilled to make a semifreddo ($8). Colette, being at heart, as her name suggests, a Francophile, went for Provence, which, as its name suggests, featured lavender-scented buttermilk panna cotta with moscatto d’asti apricot “soup” and a dab of green apple sorbet ($8). As in all that proceeded it, the dessert course relied for its success on the chef’s consummate skill in blending and balancing flavors, textures and sensations.

Throughout the meal we prefaced and paired dishes with wines by the glass, sampling tasting portions of strangers and ordering full pours of old friends. This is also the strategy that informed our second visit, for which we parked ourselves at the bar and shared four small plates from the starters list. It was our way of pinching ourselves, quadruple-checking to be sure we hadn’t been dreaming the first time around. We had not.

MoZaic Restaurant

1377 Main St., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 951-6272

Hours: Wine bar opens at 4 p.m.; dinner 5-10 p.m.; dessert until 11, Monday-Saturday

Cards: AmEx, V, MC, Discover

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: on street or in nearby free garage

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