Mosaica · Vauxhall, NJ
In the last year, my colleagues have managed to discover some great food in our office environs in Boston and Cambridge: from Vietnamese sandwiches in a Chinatown dating service office, to chickpea fritters in Kendall Square’s dirt-cheap food trucks, to the freshest $7 vegan lunch at the Buddhist center in Central Square.
Having been witness to great food in offbeat places, I had no qualms with the unconventional location of Mosaica, tucked into the ubiquitously suburban Millburn Mall in Vauxhall, New Jersey. Once inside, the Staples and Walgreens stores fade away, and you feel as if you’ve entered owner Michelle Toledano’s personal dining room. His decor is comfortable but classy, the 40-person-capacity room cozy and quiet.
It’s a fitting backdrop for chef Moses Wendel’s cuisine: each dish possessing a Moroccan soul but taken to a stylish level with ample French influence. We were given a few moments to review their menu before it was spirited away and the tasting menu experience began.
We were first presented with a lentil soup, featuring a perfectly hard-cooked egg. I powered through the overly exuberant cilantro and enjoyed the soup; it was well spiced, but tame. Personally, I would have appreciated some kick — hot sauce served on the side for adventurous diners would be welcome.
Our fish course was unexpectedly delightful: fresh sardines, dusted with fennel, and served atop a salad of roasted tomatoes, eggplant, and basil. The accompanying sauce paired well, but we were at a loss to identify its contents.
Next, individual tagine dishes appeared, and the lids came off to reveal not a braised preparation, but instead crispy sweetbreads, light and juicy, with an equally crisp salad of celeriac, shaved fennel, tomato, and pine nuts.
Our appetites thoroughly whetted, we ventured into duck territory. A slice of perfectly seared duck breast (crisp skin, rare meat) accompanied roasted figs, a silky arak-infused sauce, almond-potato puree and olive tapenade. The intellectual stimulation of these highly disparate flavors gave way to a giddy emotional response once I combined them into harmonious mouthfuls– rich fat complementing licorice and almonds, sweet figs complementing olives. A consummate professional, I resisted licking my plate.
To conclude the savory courses, our group of three was presented with lamb tagine, served family style in a roasted pumpkin alongside a dish of spiced couscous. By this point, I futilely wished the lentil soup had been much smaller; I could manage only a small portion of this exquisite lamb, braised slowly with prunes, Moroccan spices, sunchokes, and pistachios. (With the experience still fresh in my memory, I prepared Gourmet Magazine’s take on the dish a week later to satisfy my heightened desire.) Rest assured, my companions polished off what I couldn’t.
Fortunately, there’s a separate compartment for dessert. The New Jersey Star-Ledger reports that Chef Wendel was previously a pastry chef; his talents are put to fine use in Mosaica’s desserts. The chocolate souffle is a nod to the now commonplace Manhattan kosher dessert, and doubtless there to please more conventional diners. (The peanut brittle ice cream and caramel sauce help it stand out from the pack.)
The real star was their interpretation of a plum clafoutis, paired with orange spice ice cream.
The financier with lemon curd was also well-suited to the French/Morrocan menu; a nice option for a lighter dessert.
I was delighted to have enjoyed a menu full of things I doubt I’d have ordered individually. I put my meal in Mosaica’s hands, and they responded admirably. (At $60 per person, the tasting menu was also a good value.)
I’m already finding excuses for another trip to New Jersey.
2933 Vauxhall Road, Vauxhall, NJ