Full disclosure: I was once an employee of Cafe Mosaics, back in its early days as incipient vegetarian mecca. The restaurant was in the process of being made over from ersatz Euro-bistro to inventive meatless diner by the marvelous Shenkarek family, who also lent the wee space to painters and performers of various stripes. It became a way station for local artists and touring acts, and was always a font of great music, owing to the fact that some employees did double-duty at a local record shop. The kitchen coined such legendary comfort food as the tofu clubhouse, the secret burrito, the veggie cowgirl breakfast and the much beloved vegan chocolate cake.
That was 15 years ago and, somehow, I hadn’t been to Mosaics since the Shenkareks sold the business a few years back. Still I can’t help but feel an almost proprietary affection for the spot. So when I walked into the familiar-feeling dining room recently and spotted the portrait of grinning country great Ernest Tubb sitting on the top of the dessert case—exactly where it was a sitting a decade and a half ago—I figured it must be in good hands.
I’m not saying it’s exactly the same, but this is still Cafe Mosaics in most of the ways that matter, as in: tofu clubhouse, Falafel Fridays and, yes, vegan chocolate cake. The red walls are covered in local art, a sign warns you that you, the patron, have no control over the volume or content of your meal’s soundtrack and the various flyers tacked up by the doors and on the plank panelling around the till attest that it’s still a crossroads for local culture-bearers. You can even see the lingering esthetic imprint of Penny Buckner (nee Shenkarek), a gifted visual artist whose distinctive style pervaded the dining room and gave Whyte Avenue its most beautiful sandwich-boards.
Co-diner and I weren’t there to eat the past, however.
I was pleased the current regime has seen fit to retain a number of Mosaics’ signature dishes from the aforementioned meatless clubhouse and burrito to the grilled, spinach-stuffed mozza pita with a spicy-creamy slather, to the cowgirl breakfast and vegan chocolate cake with ganache. But the menu’s also grown to include more vegan selections and an unruly number of meatless burgers.
My favourite Mosaics dish was always the falafel, which now goes for $14 but can be had for $10 on Fridays—”Falafel Friday,” if you will. I could scarcely pass up the opportunity to revisit that old friend. I should have remembered, though, that ordering a side house salad with the falafel is a bit like ordering a salad with a side of salad, so packed is the pita with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, banana peppers and pickles, not to mention the massive discs of falafel dolloped with thick tahini sauce. It’s actually a bit of a problem to handle, so make sure to get extra napkins. The falafel balls themselves are just about perfect, crisp on the outside but big enough that they’re still soft and fluffy at the core. Even though redundant, the side house salad (with pumpkin seeds, purple cabbage and raspberry vinaigrette on top) was generous, fresh and really tasty.
The curry dinner ($16) was beautiful, a gorgeous array of colourful, tender-crisp vegetables (red pepper, carrot, eggplant, cabbage) and tofu enrobed in a coconutty curry sauce that packed a nice cumulative kick of spice. Even the mound of rice—a rice blend to be precise—was handsome and inviting. House-made apple chutney was also part of the deal. I was reminded that vegetarians make the very best curry.
My nostalgia trip almost over, I was informed by the prompt, pleasant server that the place was scheduled for a makeover. Judging from the art-abused walls and the presence of bric-a-brac that had been adorning the joint for close to two decades, it’s long overdue. But I hope they find some room for Ernest Tubb on top of the dessert case all the same.
10844 – 82 Ave