Pile It On 

The many layers of Café Mosaic

In Providence, R.I., snug at the foot of College Hill, equidistant for Brown and RISD students, legislators from the State House and downtown workers, stands Geoff's, the world's best sandwich joint. Now, if a sandwich is just stuff on bread, what makes this place so great? Well, Geoff's set all the standards against which I now compare every sandwich shop: Its location was ideal, its offerings showed amazing variety and innovation, and the staff was as quirky as the sandwiches -- and quick.

Location matters more to a sandwich shop than any other kind of restaurant. No one goes across town for a sandwich. Someone seeking weekday lunchtime business needs to set up in a convenient, accessible spot like the hot dog vendors outside the courthouse. Or like Caf Mosaic a little farther south. Situated at the corner of South Tejon and Costilla streets, Caf Mosaic is a short walk for anyone working downtown. For those a bit farther away, there are generally metered parking spots available.

Caf Mosaic gets high marks for the breadth and ambition of its menu, and the freshness and variety of its ingredients. The large wall menus and handwritten specials board are packed with choices: hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, grilled sandwiches, focaccia sandwiches, soups, quiche and some lovely salads. It would take a very long time to eat your way through the menu. Based on what we sampled, you wouldn't be disappointed by anything along the way. Nor would you go broke; most sandwiches are $5.75 or $6.00, and most salads are under $6.00.

On one visit we tried the day's soup and quiche special. The beef chili had a pleasant kick to it -- nothing that would hurt anyone -- and was loaded with chunks of tomatoes, two kinds of beans, onions and ground beef. The quiche, big enough for more than one, had a nice flaky crust, a light custardy base and a layer of fresh spinach and cheese on top. Though tasty, the top part was a bit rubbery, as though it had been over-baked.

Sandwich shops seem compelled to name sandwiches -- no easy task. Do you ask local celebrities to design their favorite and name it after them? Do culinary puns and political editorializing play a role? (At Geoff's, the Buddy Cianci, named for Providence's own convicted-felon mayor, featured a lot of ham and tongue.) It's more prosaic at Caf Mosaic: You've got your Manhattan, your Urban, your Manitou. Anything with pineapple's got to be Hawaii-inspired, right? So there's a Maui Chicken sandwich and guess what's in the Dandelion?

Happily, this unimaginative approach does not extend to the sandwiches themselves; they are terrific. The Maui Chicken comes with provolone melting all over the marinated chicken and avocado, and lettuce, tomato and onion add some crunch and balance to that grilled pineapple. And I don't care what you call a sandwich made with corned beef, cole slaw, Muenster, tomato and onion. I call it a winner.

Combos like the bacon and tuna with Pepper Jack cheese on grilled rye or the roast beef and cheddar on a croissant are tasty and, with the addition of some of the accompaniments like artichoke hearts, avocado or yellow bell peppers, become terrific lunchtime options.

The standouts, however, are the focaccia sandwiches. They are huge and the fillings are superb. The mushroom focaccia includes grilled onions, bacon, provolone and tomato. A vegetarian focaccia, the Placa, offers artichoke hearts, feta cheese, black olives, onions and tomatoes. The Pesto Chicken is tangy with a salty teriyaki marinated chicken breast, melted Swiss and tomato, all held together with the Caf's pesto mayonnaise.

Here's an aside, which is either a food quibble or another indication I am losing my mind. On our first visit I thought the focaccia bread was crusty and beautifully herbed. On our second, some weeks later, I thought it was closer to Wonder Bread. I wanted to ask the counter lad if they had changed breads but he was so uncommunicative when I placed the order, I didn't see much hope.

Which leads me further into the category of style. There isn't much of it here. The dining area is open and clean, dominated by an interesting mosaic piece on one wall. Hanging plants add some greenery but the room has an anonymous feel to it. Tables and uncomfortable chairs (unless you're the size of a linebacker, their hard bamboo backs will hit you in all the wrong places) are lined up like a school cafeteria.

Perhaps the most egregious error of style is the open kitchen in view behind the front counter. Unless chefs are performers -- like Wolfgang Puck or the crew at Blue Star -- food preparation doesn't need full disclosure.

The obvious solution is take-out. Calling ahead eliminates any frustration an inordinate wait might create. Caf Mosaic also delivers within a limited south downtown area, and that may be the best solution. After all, the sandwiches are good. Takeout orders are nicely packaged with napkins, a bag of chips, and a pickle. Just ask them to wrap the pickle so it doesn't sog up your sandwich.


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