I went 14 weeks without eating a meal inside a restaurant, an unprecedented span of time that has not been repeated in my entire adult life. It most certainly hasn’t happened during my two-decade stint as a food writer. My last working meal took place on March 11 at Mojo, the new-old concept that chef Michael Herschman opened in the former Lopez space in Cleveland Heights. I had already planned a return visit for the review when, well, we all know what happened.
So, what a perfect way to bookend the story by having my first meal back on the beat take place at the same spot as my outgoing meal. Needless to say, everything except for the food has changed during that three-month span.
The last time we ate at Mojo, our table neighbors were so close that they inquired about the dishes on our table after coveting them. This time around, I practically had to shout to say hello to a friend at an “adjacent” table. Of course, the distance between tables is just one of a million little (and big) things that diners now confront when visiting a restaurant. At Mojo, guests are subjected to a quick temperature check, the soles of one’s shoes are sprayed and (ostensibly) disinfected, and hands make their way through the sanitation station. The entire staff, including host, bartender, servers and chef, is wearing a mask. Menus that used to be mounted on rigid poster board are now printed on thin disposable paper.
When Herschman announced his plans to revive Mojo, the pioneering small-plate restaurant that he launched in Tremont, I was thrilled. Though it had been 20 years since I dined there, I can recall with giddy clarity the experience, which proved to be a formative one for me personally. Here was a buzzy chef-owned bistro in a burgeoning neighborhood serving up a dizzying selection of dishes, each more compelling and tantalizing than the last.
While no longer pioneering, the food at Mojo is every bit as exciting as I remember. Built for mixing and matching, the menu features two dozen options (down from three-dozen pre-Covid) priced from $7 to $17. All the bases are covered in terms of vegetarian, seafood and meat based concoctions, most displaying the chef’s flair for weaving cross-cultural influences into a seamless finished product.
This time around we munched and crunched on crispy-fried tofu triangles ($8) dressed with a zippy red chile glaze and set against a cool and gingery mixed vegetable slaw. Last time around we enjoyed the sweet and spicy calamari ($10), a version of which the chef has been playing with for eons. Another blast from the past stars thin-sliced rare steak ($10) and bouncy sweet potato noodles in a lively red curry vinaigrette. Gazpacho ($7.50), a seasonal special, had a hint of cumin and an ideal texture that landed between baby-food smooth and too chunky.
A dark and brittle-crisp tempura shell encases three large, succulent shrimp ($9) sporting a warm five-spice aroma. They arrive atop a pool of coconut and chile-infused peanut sauce. A medium-size bowl struggles to contain a riot of flavors and textures that starts with perfectly fried boneless chicken thighs and ends with a runny fried egg. In between is punchy, crunchy housemade kim chi and a smoky-sweet Asian-spiced glaze. Those with larger appetites – or guests who are willing to share – should ponder the brisket poutine ($10), a mountain of french fries, tender smoked meat, savory mushroom gravy and fresh mozzarella, all capped with an egg. Next time I might consider ordering two plates of the lamb chops ($14) because three bones are never enough. These came with tender scallion pancakes and a refreshing raita.
One pleasant holdover from the Lopez days is the beverage program, which features potent potables like pitchers of margaritas, carefully crafted cocktails and well-chosen wines by the glass and bottle.
We enjoyed those margaritas on a sparsely populated patio because the concept of dining inside a restaurant still is something I’m not eager to do. Exchanges with a server, however fleeting and brief, are accompanied by anxiety and uncertainty. Do we put the masks back on whenever she arrives? Is that a look of trepidation on her masked face? When did dining out become such a stressful activity?
I’d like to think that with time and practice, the dread will dissipate, because I truly do miss the feeling of escape that comes with a great restaurant experience, not to mention leaving the dishes to someone else. And eating out is the best way to support our local restaurants, most of which are struggling to survive. But the coronavirus hasn’t gone away, workers still are constantly at risk of getting ill and not everybody is being careful. Personally, I plan on taking it one meal at a time.
Mojo World Eats
2196 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.