Sophisticated Mojito goes platinum

LEO’s Eats with

Mojito Tapas Restaurant in the Holiday Manor center features small-plate Spanish tapas with a Cuban vibe. Chef-owner Fernando Martinez recently traveled to Europe and brought much of what he learned back home to kick Mojito’s menu up a notch. Photos by Robin Garr

When Mojito Tapas Restaurant opened in the Holiday Manor center early in 2007, it almost instantly turned golden. A stylish, upscale-but-affordable eatery run by the good folks who brought us Havana Rumba, featuring small-plate Spanish tapas with a Cuban vibe: What’s not to like?

And now it has gone platinum.

Chef-owner Fernando Martinez spent a couple of months in Europe last winter, taking a six-week intensive culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and traveling to Barcelona and environs in Spain to visit tapas bars. He’s talking about going back for more, but in the meantime, he brought much of what he learned back home and used it to kick Mojito’s menu up a notch … or several.

The new menu rolled out in April, and ever since, Mojito has been more slammed than ever. If you care to dine without a wait, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to do as we did on a recent visit: We arrived a little before 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, easily got a table, then watched the place fill up and a line form within an hour. (Other options: Come for lunch, or drop in late when the crowds finally start thinning after 9 p.m.)

“We moved to a more Spanish and Catalan influence,” the Havana-born Martinez said in discussions on the LouisvilleHotBytes online forum. “We are really exited about it. … I always have been really interested in Spanish and Catalan cooking, and my trip to Europe influenced the changes; also we visited several tapas places around the country for inspiration. Can you tell that I’m obsessed with food? I had never been in Europe so this is a dream come true.”

Inspiration indeed. Mojito’s tapas are firmly rooted in the tradition originally invented in Jerez, Spain, home of Sherry wine, where small plates bearing tasty snacks were used as lids to keep fruit flies out of one’s glass of Sherry while dining al fresco.

Mojito’s tapas are far too sizable to balance on your wine glass, and I didn’t see any fruit flies around. But fired by Martinez’s inspiration, they fill your table with the colorful flavors of Spain, Cuba and the Caribbean, designed and plated in artful fashion that makes them a feast for the eyes and the palate.

What’s more, it remains an affordable feast, with more than 30 tapas – some tradicionales and others modernas, plus salads, flatbread dishes, sandwiches and outstanding paella – all priced to sell in the range from $4.99 (for a few of the smaller tapas) to a more-than-reasonable $16.99 (per person for paella, which must be ordered an hour in advance for parties of two to four).

We had no time for paella this evening, but luckily ran into friends on the way in and made a quick decision to form a foursome, doubling the number of tapas we could try. It was a wise choice, as Martinez has added so many goodies that a couple would have to come back repeatedly to try them all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Mojito hasn’t undergone any dramatic decor changes, although what had been the front door is now an exit, with the main entrance moved around to the side, something I learned only after bulling through the wrong door and encountering a squadron of waving servers, d’oh!

The vibe of the place (which previously housed La Peche II) bears a familial resemblance to its sister eatery, Havana Rumba: Cuban-style chairs with leather seats and backs surround heavy, undraped tables. Booths line one side of the room; a long green banquette runs down the other, and there’s an inviting bar at the back. Light guacamole-green walls sport Cuban memorabilia, a few colorful paintings and framed black-and-white photos.

I took a quick look at the short but more-than-passable wine and beer lists, but hey – the bar dispenses delicious mojitos, so why not go with the namesake? White rum and soda, lime juice and mint, muddled together and strained into an offbeat curvilinear glass with a stick of sugar cane for stirring; a tall, cooling drink that’s good with food and not so alcoholic as to knock you over before dessert.

We worked our way through the tapas list, trying to focus on Martinez’s new items, choosing one or two from just about every menu section but Tapas Traditionales (sorry, we’re being moderne, er, moderna today). Most of the small plates were enough to give everyone in the foursome a little share; we doubled up on a couple of items so good that we just had to have more.

Among highlights:

Mojito's guacamole
Mojito’s guacamole is some of the finest in the city.

Ensalada de Judeón ($5.99), my wife’s favorite of the evening, is a bean salad featuring two varieties of white beans including Judean (actually Spanish) beans plus garbonzos, tocineta (the Spanish equivalent of pancetta), oven-dried tomatoes and red onions over salad greens in a Spanish olive-oil and sherry-vinegar vinaigrette.

Pato confitado ($6.99) is a dish so fine that it has created a buzz all its own: Catalan-style flat bread, thin as a New York-style pizza, is topped with tender bits of duck confit, fig marmalade and goat cheese, topped with an herb salad including lots of crisp frisée.

Raviolo ($4.99) seemed to bridge the gap between Italy and Spain. A pair of round pasta pockets that appeared to have been cut with pinking shears were stuffed with ricotta and Capriole goat cheese, Serrano ham, Spanish chorizo and almonds, topped with a savory mix of tomato confit and Manchego cheese.

Higos rellenos ($7.99) consisted of three ripe, purple mission figs, stuffed with Capriole, wrapped in applewood bacon and served atop a smoked honey and zesty red piquillo sauce. Speared on tiny silver forks, they were like grown-up lollipops.

From the Mariscos (“seafood”) section, mejillones al sofrito ($6.99) was a good-size bowl loaded with blue mussels in the shell, swimming in an aromatic red soup of tomatoes, garlic and onions, scented with olive oil, Spanish white wine and cilantro.

Wrapping up the savories were two small but surprisingly hearty Carnes (“meats”) tapas.

Cerdo azado ($7.99), another favorite for us, was a fist-size chunk of slow-roasted pork so tender it fell into bite-size pieces at the touch of a fork. Scented with garlic and served with fresh spinach, it was billed as Spanish and Catalan style, but Martinez’s Cuban heritage showed through: It reminded me of some of the best Cuban-style pork I’ve enjoyed in South Florida – or at Havana Rumba.

Rioja short ribs ($11.99) was actually a single rib, but there was plenty of tender, beefy meat on the bone, braised in Spanish red wine and, if I don’t miss my guess, a hint of cinnamon. There was a dab of garlic-chived mashed potatoes in there somewhere.

Desserts included Mojito’s famous, tangy-sweet goat-cheese flan ($6.99), which comes with a scoop of rich, dense dulce de leche (cajeta in Spain) ice cream; and a Trio de Chocolate ($7.99), a long dish bearing three chocolate treats: a scoop of creamy, dense dark-chocolate ice cream, a “chocolate custard” that looked an awful lot like a creme brulee to me, and a small square bowl of airy chocolate mousse filled with fresh blueberries. Or maybe tiny champagne grapes. At that point, who cares? I simply loosened my belt and enjoyed.

Did I mention that Mojito is affordable? Dinner for four came to just $109.58. We added a $12 tip for excellent service to our $54.79 share and went out into the suburban sunset thinking it’s hard to find a better upscale restaurant deal in Louisville.

Mojito Tapas Restaurant
2231 Holiday Manor Center
Robin Garr’s rating: 93 points