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Fits and Starts

Mosaic's Mediterranean composition coming together beautifully


Atmane Amir realized a deep-rooted dream last October. He opened his Mediterranean-inspired venture Mosaic in an intimate converted house in Buckhead, the former home of Grappa.

A scant two months later, he closed the place.

Bad dream? Was the glamorous toil of the restaurant business not all he'd hoped for?

Actually, the novice restaurateur had hired a staff that didn't quite jive with his vision for the business. "Our styles were divergent. I saw there could be issues," says Amir diplomatically. "I said to myself, 'You got too excited, you need to stop before you go too much further.' So I came at 3 a.m. and locked the doors. I closed the bank account. They said, 'You're nuts!'"

More like ballsy. Amir regrouped: He brought in chef Robert Guillou, most recently at Azure Bistro and Joël before that, as a menu consultant. He put an ad in the paper and connected with David Farrell, a San Francisco-based chef whom Amir felt could bring a fresh perspective to the restaurant. A new wait staff was hired. And Mosaic reopened its doors in August, much more attuned to Amir's inceptive ideal.

But you definitely feel the newbie vibe when you walk through the restaurant's doors. Everyone's so fresh-faced and welcoming: "So good to see you. We have some great specials tonight. Is this table OK? We can give you something more private in the other room..." Amir converses mellifluously in French to ex-pats who are quickly becoming regulars. Farrell sticks his head out from the back and gazes at the crowd like a kid at his first rock concert.

Even the decor emanates an unsullied outlook. The wall color reminds me of Meyer lemons, a yellow tint with a greenish underpinning. Sunny pictures of the Greek isle of Santorini invoke exotic vacation fantasies. This place feels so unjaded it almost makes me suspicious.

Fortunately, much of the food quells suspicion. The menu has the feel of a work in progress, and the kitchen is still finding its footing, but choose wisely and you can assemble a memorable meal. Rule of thumb here: If it looks interesting, it probably is. And vice versa.

Roasted lavender honey goat cheese crottin with stuffed grape leaves? Yep, that piques my interest. The servers here have the sales pitch on this one down pat. They'll tell you the goat cheese is coated in honey and then sauteed, so the outside is browned and crispy but the inside is still soft. And so it is -- a melty contrast of crispy and gooey that makes a nice juxtaposition to the vinegary grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts and fruit. The spheroid of starchy mesclun greens underneath needs a heavier dose of fig vinaigrette -- or to just be drastically reduced in volume altogether.

Mussels steamed in white wine arrive in a wad of aluminum foil in the shape of a toilet seat. Huh. Not the most appetizing presentation ever conceived. Thankfully, once everyone at the table tears into the fragrant, tender critters strewn with aioli, the foil gets jostled and the disconcerting images stray from your mind.

Mosaic bills itself as serving "coastal Mediterranean cuisine," but that culinary region has been so mined by stateside chefs that it's basically merged with New American cooking. You've had umpteen variations of the watercress and endive salad with the roasted beets, blue cheese and candied pecans. Beef carpaccio is decorated with an assembly of trendy toppings that have become yawnsome: dabs of truffled tapenade, shards of Grana Padano, bits of cured lemons and tufts of arugula.

I'm hoping Farrell will bring more San Fran POV to the menu as he settles in. A sublime entree of seared scallops with cauliflower puree hints at ingredient-driven daring. A haunting saffron sauce, a slashing of spicy, herbal chermoula and a twiggy crown of crispy leeks lend roguish playfulness to the dish. Roasted duck sauce, murky and autumnal, clings amorously to wide pappardelle noodles shipped in from the city's primo pasta shop, Via Elisa. (This dish must be a specialty of the neighborhood. Antica Posta, a block away, also makes a mean duck ragu with pasta.)

I'm sick of créme brûlee, but I admit that orange blossom water -- perhaps a Moroccan nod to Amir's hometown of Casablanca -- is a novel, evocative way to perfume custard.

When the food flops here, it's doubly disappointing because you so want to cheer this place on. But it's hard to give shout-outs to chalky risotto, even though the porcini mushrooms it's served with are unctuously delicious. Beware of rice here: the paella under a wood-grilled grouper was also undercooked.

Our server whips out the magic declaration to describe a peach cobbler-ish dessert. "Orgasmic," he repeats with conviction. "It's bursting with peaches." Hmmm. The underwhelming combination of soggy crust, scarce fruit and heavy crumb topping doesn't inspire me to rise to the occasion. Wield the O word with care.

Still, Mosaic is off to a promising start. I sense that when the restaurant eases into its skin, it will become a celebrated hangout for sophisticated locals as well as a standout for special date nights. After all, a man like Amir, who would close a restaurant to hone its vision, won't rest until all the pieces of his puzzle fit together handsomely.

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