"We didn’t want to be in the middle
of things," says Maria Catalina Arias, of Mojito, the Cuban
restaurant she co-owns with Anderson Ruiz in Clinton Hill. She
needn’t have worried.
Opened in February, their restaurant is on the northwestern edge of the neighborhood, near Fort Greene, but far from that neighborhood’s two restaurant rows: DeKalb and Lafayette avenues. The stretch of Washington Street where Mojito is centered is just beginning to exhibit signs of gentrification. There’s a new loft condo behind it, warehouses on both sides, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where there are plans for a retail-commercial strip close by.
Mojito’s loft-like space, inside the Chocolate Factory Building, has the industrial chic of a gallery. As you approach, diners are gathered outside, flirting and having a smoke. Inside Mojito (named for the rum cocktail made with lime and fresh mint), the decor is what you’d expect, with high ceilings, brick walls and an open kitchen. In keeping with the Cuban theme, there are heavy wooden tables and chairs, brown banquettes, framed pictures of cigars and simple graphics of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara painted on a low wall in the bar area [although those were recently found to be covered over by a low wall of bamboo].
Chef Marcelo Arias, Maria’s husband, created the menu. Maria describes the cuisine as traditional Cuban, but like so much of Caribbean cooking today, Mexican elements inform dishes like the Cuban quesadilla. A meal at Mojito is a samba of sorts with some dishes exhibiting the spicy, fruit-enhanced flair Cuban cooking is known for and others, shockingly flat.
If you haven’t already guessed, the house drink is the mojito, and their rendition is excellent. Served in a tall Mason jar (with a handle), the cocktail of club soda and light rum is made tangy with lime and freshened with a bundle of fresh mint. The swizzle stick is a thick stalk of real sugarcane. The passion fruit version was sweeter, more of a punch, but just as enjoyable. With the cocktails came a small basket of toasted, buttered slices of French bread and two saucers of mayonnaise-based dips - a thin, light green sauce flavored with garlic, cilantro and jalapenos, and another, very garlicky white sauce. Dipped into the warm sauces and paired with the cool drinks, the little buttery starters made an enticing prelude to the meal.
A diner can make a good meal of the appetizers if they choose carefully. I wouldn’t pass up the corn smeared with mayonnaise, cotijo cheese (a salty, crumbly Mexican cheese) and chili powder that had a smoky aroma from the grill. Yuca fries, cut from the yuca root, was almost as good as french fries and the Cuban quesadilla, filled with tender beef and slices of sweet plantains, was meaty and chewy with a note of sweetness. On the sweeter side was a delicately crisp empanada filled with a mild, creamy cheese and guava paste that was like an adult version of a cream cheese and jelly sandwich.
Two starters - the croquettes filled with ham and the heavy, overly chewy pastry tart shells topped with shredded beef or chicken - were tasteless bores. The flaky beef and chicken empanadas make for much better choices.
I have the same comment about the disappointing slow-roasted pork, called pernil. I’d have to look hard to find a drier mound of meat, and the mojito marinade left no impression. A side of yellow rice was traditionally bland, and a bowl of soupy black beans needed salt, or pepper, or garlic, or cumin - something - to alleviate the monotony of the taste.
The rice mixed with shrimp and calamari topped with a giant prawn and surrounded by mussels, that my companion ordered from the list of that day’s specials, looked like a gorgeous, molded seafood sculpture, but its aroma, like fish that have been in the sun too long - was off-putting. I made him stop eating after a couple of bites.
The meal could only go up after the entrees, and Mojito’s desserts were pleasing. The cooks follow the recipes of Ms. Arias’ grandmother, Claudia. Claudia’s Key lime pie, served in a big square and topped with whipped cream, is sweeter than some, but tart enough. Her four-milk sponge cake, cuatro leches, made with evaporated and condensed milks and heavy cream, then topped with whipped cream and a little caramel is delectably moist, not terribly sweet, and lighter than it sounds. And at $2.50, these desserts are a steal!
At the moment, Mojito is the only game in this end of town. For Mojito to survive, however, the cooks need to amp up the flavor of the dishes. Some of us may be gringos, but a little spice never hurt anyone.
Mojito (82 Washington Ave. between Park and Flushing avenues in Clinton Hill) accepts American Express, Discover, Diners Club, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $7-$12.50; up to $15 for specials. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For more information call (718) 797-3100.