High Steaks Gambit

Will "crossroads cuisine" reinvent both St. Louis Park and the Brazilian barbecue?

However, do not venture from the world of meats cooked on the grill, because that is where things get dicey. The shrimp cocktail is a soupy Mexican version; whenever I had it the shrimp were overcooked and falling apart. The three times I tried the empanadas they seemed to be made from widely different recipes. The best time, the cheese empanadas were gooey and melting, with a touch of scallion and herb, and the meat ones were full of caramelized bits of red pepper, beef, and piquant green olive. The worst time the cheese ones seemed to be made of unflavored cottage cheese, and the beef unadorned chopped meat.

Desserts were a disaster: One time banana-stuffed crepes arrived as three chilled crepes folded on one side of the plate, a pile of sliced bananas on the other, and piles of dulce de leche caramel and ice cream between them. It was like, "Now, if you only can get some butter, and a stove, you have all the ingredients for banana-stuffed crepes!" Servers kept telling me that the Brazilian coconut custard was the thing to get, but twice it tasted like jellied sugar. The tres leches cake is also like sugar out of the bag, without the richness you hope for in the dish.

I made more than my usual run of visits to Mojito, and I was in despair until I blundered on the oysters and the carnitas, which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The carnitas ($10) is a brimming plate of slow-fried, tender pork served with grilled corn tortillas, a pile of pickled onions, carrots, jalapeño, and ramekins of thinned guacamole and red chile sauce. It's one of the best taco plates in town, the rich meat contrasting perfectly with the freshness of the avocado, the piquant vegetables, the spice of the chile, and the grill-striped tortillas. The oysters on the half shell are bluepoints covered with chile and lime juice, served with cilantro and more limes. At $15 a dozen, they should go into your file for evenings after a movie at the St. Louis 6: Oysters at the stylish bar with its high ceiling, low chairs, and light-box art of sexy Miami moments is Mojito in its best aspect.

Top shelf: Server Brennan Carlson with a sampler of offerings from Mojito's stylish bar
Raoul Benavides
Top shelf: Server Brennan Carlson with a sampler of offerings from Mojito's stylish bar

Unless you really care about wine, because the beverage selection is the one thing that is indisputably impressive at Mojito, besides the nightly waits. In fact, I defy you to come up with a family member who couldn't be delighted here: guanabana juice, Grape Nehi, Red Bull, and Mrs. Kelly's Cozy Chamomile tea are only the tip of the place's nonalcoholic list, and once you hit the hard stuff, hold on to your hats: I'm talking two dozen beers, just as many top-shelf sipping rums, scads of whiskies, and so many signature cocktails it makes the head spin. The best I tried was the Anejo Highball ($7), made with spicy Jamaican ginger beer and bitters.

The wine list is the most exciting component of the restaurant--even if it is priced a little high. (Yes, here we are again with my pet peeve of Cristalino cava priced at $29 bottle when it retails for $7! What is with all you people? I'm not going to write about this every week! Or maybe I will until you all quit it!) There are a few of those four-times-retail stinkers, but we'll ignore those for the time being to concentrate on the virtue of the list: its strong showing of South American wines, including what I think is Minnesota's first Uruguayan section. I find South American wines, with their fruit glut habit of selling tankers of grape juice to North Americans for rebottling and constantly changing players, to be maddening to track, and the idea that there is now a place staying on top of this is thrilling to me.

For instance, I tried a glass of Argentinian viognier one night, from Don Miguel Gascon, and it was clean and austere, a little green and piney, a little floral and peachy, and so all of a sudden I have a new $10 viognier to search for. Ideally, this is how a good wine list works, searching and sifting to make your life fun and easy.

On the next level, a great wine list should increase your prestige and subtly lend itself to helping you execute your goals, be they business or social. Mojito does that too, if you ask for the constantly changing Captain's List of reserve wines. This thing is filled with the Guccis and Ferraris of the wine world: a Gaja super Tuscan, a Kistler Chardonnay, Plumpjack and Silver Oak cabernets. (These are at very reasonable markups, by the way, even if they're not the best vintages.) Put one of these on the table, and you should be able to shock and awe your way to whatever you want.

Of course, Bobino was one of the pioneering wine bars in Minnesota, so the fact that Mojito nailed that part of its identity isn't too surprising. That its creators made the leap so successfully from artsy, gay-darling, chick-magnet Bobino to the steak-and-cocktail world of the suburbs is a lot more surprising. When I talked to Paddock on the phone, he was charmingly giddy about Mojito's success thus far, the hour-long waits, his role as savior to St. Louis Park, the shower of praise from the flood of customers, the way his various intuitions, alliances, and aspirations seem to be bearing fruit.

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