Mojito Lacks Mojo

Cuban cantina's dinner mains are a major letdown

MOJITO (84 Yorkville, at Bellair, 416-916-2367) Upscale Cuban cantina offers uneven takes on Latin cuisine for the Gucci set. Lunch-only menu — complex salads, seafood pizza — and unusual fruit ‘n’ cheese desserts show great promise, but many mains don’t deliver the same expertise. Complete meals for $50 per person ($30 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a namesake minty Mojito rum cocktail. Open Tuesday to Friday for lunch noon to 3 pm and for dinner 5 to 11 pm Saturday noon to 11 pm Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Bar open till 2 am. Closed Monday. Fully licensed. Access: patio barrier-free, five steps down to restaurant, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NN

the literary device climbs the short concrete staircase that leads from subterranean Mojito, a brand-spanking-new cantina on Yorkville, back to its breezy curbside patio. Returning from the ladies’ loo and plunking herself down on a metal mesh chair, she verifies this Cuban restaurant’s authenticity.”It’s the real thing, all right,” says the frequent Havana visitor. “There’s no toilet paper in the washroom.”

Because of the speaker mere inches from my right ear blasting the Buena Vista Social Club and a Lamborghini simultaneously revving its engine in the parking lot next door, I have to lean in to catch her revelation. No one else on the small but packed terrace appears to mind the din.

Quite the opposite — a chap at the next table uses salt and pepper shakers as a pair of air maracas and bellows along to the CD. Must be the rum-fuelled, mint-rich Mojitos ($7.50) he’s knocking back.

Feeling a little out of place among the Gucci-clad hairdressers and haberdashers who frequent the joint, we’re bummed railing-side for a cigarette by a squeaky-clean panhandler decked out in Dockers and a Lacoste polo shirt. He’s better dressed than we are in Yorkville, even the poor don’t look it.

Today, the Device and I are joined by a newbie. I promised to give her an allegedly amusing nom de nosh, so let’s dub her “Deb.”

Watch as Deb tucks into a fabulous Ensalada de Papa y Habichuelas Verdes ($6.50), a delicious tunaless near-niçoise tangle of commercial mesclun and peppery watercress piled with sautéed red onions, green beans, double-smoked pancetta and halved new potatoes.

The Device’s Ensalada de Remolacha ($6) — sweet purple beets layered with a gingery mango vinaigrette over more watercress — proves even more taste-tacular.

I consider starting with an intriguingly tropical Sopa de Melon ($4.50) — cool minty watermelon soup garnished with kiwi salsa — but opt for Pizza de Mariscos ($12) instead. Piled high with a fisherman’s catch of seafood, the firm, thin crust supports a lovely, basil-infused tomato sauce and eight in-the-shell mussels, four clams, two tail-on shrimp and cross-sections of lobster.

Though the shellfish’s liquor makes this ‘za a messy knife-and-fork effort, it still gets full marks.

Deb doesn’t do as well with a pressed Cubano ($9.50), a disappointing sandwich stuffed with fatty pork, delicatessen ham, not-very-Swiss cheese, rubbery homemade pickles and they-really-shouldn’t-have-bothered house-baked baguette.

Literally translated as old woman’s clothes, the Device’s Ropa Vieja ($9.50 lunch/$18.95 dinner) sees bland shredded flank steak mixed in a slow-cooked stew of onion, tomato, green pepper and pimento-stuffed green olives sided with Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice).

Back for dinner, the Device and I split the Calamares Fritos ($8.50). Lightly battered and reasonably tender, these borderline squid rings are an improvement over Zelda’s rubbery rendition, but that’s not saying much.

A gentle, roasted-jalapeño yogurt dip laced with coriander and minced red onion heats things up a bit.

There’s nothing remotely incendiary about my main, an underpowered hash called Picadillo a la Habanera ($18.95). Sided with rice, soupy black beans and caramelized ripe plantain, this sloppy joe could easily be called Cuban Hamburger Helper.

The Device strikes out again with Yuca con Lechón Frito ($7.50), an entrée-sized ap’ that finds several cubes of overly dry lean pork alongside a whole lotta steamed yucca covered with a slight garlic mojo that just doesn’t work for her.

But things dramatically improve with dessert, two of which we share. Served in a hollowed-out coconut shell, Coco Rallado con Queso Crema ($8) sees a ball of shredded coconut in light syrup served over cream cheese-like queso, all topped with toasted slivers of coconut meat. Equally unusual, Cascos Toronjas con Queso Suiso finds sugary poached grapefruit shell matched with wedges of supposedly Swiss cheese ($7.50). My guess? Cheddar.

Co-owner and chef Pedro Quintanilla — an alum of Latitude, Xango and La Caretta — is clearly a pro. Deb might return to this sunny patio in a flash for his beet salad, seafood pizza, fabulous cheesy coconut desserts and several Mojitos.

But until the dinner mains meet the potential on display in the lunch menu, come winter Mojito is going to be one difficult room to fill.

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