Changing it up in St. James

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: An aspiring chef with nary any culinary experience walks into a beloved French restaurant to inquire about a job. While it’s not the road most chefs travel, it worked for Nesconset-native Jonathan Contes. The original Mirabelle in St. James epitomized fine French dining to many Islanders including Contes who ate there on special occasions with his father. After traveling around Europe he thought he’d fit right in. “I pestered Mirabelle for 36 hours until they said, ‘Come in, you start on Saturday,’” Contes says.

During that interview the chef de cuisine asked if Contes went to culinary school or had any previous kitchen experience. He didn’t, but what the then-21-year-old had was smarts, persistence and a passion to get his foot in the door—but just in case those didn’t work, he said he’d work for free. While at Mirabelle he befriended chef Tate Morris and the two opened eatMOSAIC in St. James where their envelope-pushing creations wouldn’t be restrained by classic French protocol.

The idea behind the restaurant is unique: A five-course tasting menu composed of smaller but satisfying portions that focus on global flavors. And it’s changed daily. The food is more sophisticated than the standard suburban strip-mall fare with items like smoked filet mignon, bourbon-braised pumpkin and vanilla roast celery root. Contes avoids repeating dishes; even a recent success like a seafood risotto with tarragon, strawberries and cornichons with a side of lemon and truffles made only a one-night stand. When eatMOSAIC originally opened it operated like a traditional restaurant until creativity and the bottom line suffered. “The decision to go to a tasting menu came out of necessity,” Contes says. “We literally had no one in the reservation book for Tuesdays and Wednesdays and had a minimum amount of stuff. Four people walked in and we’d say, ‘If you don’t mind we’d just like to cook for you.’”

eatMOSAIC’s success foisted a common question to Contes: Are you moving to New York City? “We know it’s a bad idea,” Contes says. He and his partner are content with the relatively intimate restaurant. “It wasn’t always the case, but I’d say we’re at about 50/50,” he says, referring to the number of regulars. “Half our clients are here because it’s part of their routine and we see them once every week and half. And the others are here because it’s a special occasion.” Part of the restaurant’s success is teaching diners about their tasting menu concept. Contes wants to educate foodies about new flavors and also introduce them in unexpected ways like a foam, jam, sorbet or gastrique. The student has definitely become the teacher.

Where the Chefs Eat
When he’s not cooking, Contes appreciates the very fresh tuna at Smithtown sushi spots Aji 53 and Hotoke. And if he’s in a Mediterranean mood, he finds the extensive whole fish menu at Limani worth the drive to Roslyn.