Frightful Delight 

Cozy up to the skulls and demons -- and the haunting flavors of Momocho.

This old house is up to some spicy new tricks.
  • This old house is up to some spicy new tricks.
Even on a crisp spring evening, a soft fog of spookiness creeps across the space once occupied by the Fulton Bar and Grill. You can feel it in the ancient crosses mounted above the front door and in the devils and angels who peer out from inside the shadows of the massive wall mural. It's there, too, in the blood-red painting of a Día de los Muertos skull, grinning madly from beside the bar. Most of all, you sense it on the rear staircase, where a horde of demon masks glower down upon you in lascivious delight.

Yes, Momocho, the Mexican love child of chef-owner Eric Williams, has taken over the converted Ohio City house, which dates to the 1880s. And it's no exaggeration to say that there is nothing else quite like it around here. Of course, that's exactly the effect that Williams (an alum of such local hot spots as Lopez, Johnny Mango, and Moxie) was hoping to achieve. And that delightfully sinister decor -- together with the dimly lit bar, the intimate upstairs dining space, and the loud, eclectic soundtrack -- sets the mood for playful meals that shimmer with creativity.

"Modern Mexican" is how Williams describes his cuisine, which he serves up with a minimum of Tex-Mex clichés. "It's just real Mexican cooking, twisted into my vision of good food." Happily, his vision is 20/20, melding top-shelf ingredients and novel seasonings into surprisingly delicate dishes of eye-popping flavor.

Not that every dish rumbles: Neither the avocados nor the lump blue crabmeat in a fancified version of guacamole quite seemed to get their due, and fried ice cream, garnished with black-truffle-laced honey, had an odd, unpleasant aftertaste, as if the plate had been dusted with garlic.

Yet even if an occasional dish falls flat, you must admire Williams' eagerness to breathe new life into tired south-of-the-border conventions. Take the guacamole, which Williams offers in six gussied-up versions. While the crabmeat option failed to move us (beyond the lovely smoky overtones of the chipotles, the flavors seemed disappointingly flat), the variation starring goat cheese, diced beefsteak tomato, and poblano chiles sang out loud, the new introductions augmenting and amplifying the basic avocado goodness. (It doesn't hurt, either, that the kitchen makes its own tortilla chips, which arrive at the table warm, crisp, and light as air.)

The vegetarian-friendly version of chile rellenos -- one of Momocho's many meatless possibilities -- is a head-turner too. Who needs greasy ground beef, when you can have your plump poblano stuffed with diced mushrooms, zucchini, roasted corn, smoked Gouda, and crumbled Chihuahua cheese, then enrobed in an ethereal cornmeal "soufflé" and settled on a guajillo-piqued tomato sauce?

The chile rellenos also illustrate another of the kitchen's gifts: the ability to turn out dishes that are delicate in texture and modest in size, yet so full of intricate twists and turns that every little taste bud feels well served. Here, we are recalling items like the lean homemade chorizo, tossed with cheese, chiles, and onions, baked until bubbly, and served with dainty corn tortillas; or the "bistec taquito," the silken slices of flatiron steak fanned across a bed of sautéed onions and peppers, and served with cilantro-rich salsa verde and fiery chipotle-honey mojo.

Still, the kitchen saves its surest moves for the eight "especiales." A duo of obscenely lush grilled lamb chops, for example, rubbed with a tangy red-chile-paste adobo and lightly stroked with jalapeño-mustard crema, made for a fiesta of savory flavors. On the side, a serving of sautéed spinach, accented with pepitas, raisins, and roasted corn, provided earthy counterpoint.

Likewise, two thick slices of seared tuna, seasoned with a haunting blend of salt, pepper, cumin, and dried avocado leaf, was a celebration on a plate. On top, a pouf of lightly dressed watercress added a peppery snap; below, a fat "chivichanga" -- actually an ultra-crisp spring roll wrapper, stuffed with a creamy blend of beans, corn, and spinach, and deep-fried to frangible perfection -- contributed heft and crunch.

Nearly as intriguing are the liquid options, including fruit-purée-infused margaritas ($7.50), premium sipping tequilas ($5.50 to $32 a pour), and a short but tempting list of Spanish and South American wines. Still, we found ourselves mired among the bottled beers, never quite able to get past Tecate, served chilada-style, in a salt-rimmed glass over ice, with lime, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauces ($3.50).

Chef Nolan Konkoski is in charge of sweet endings, including warm mocha cake, drizzled with chipotle-chocolate mojo and topped with freshly whipped cream; and a dense, caramel-and-Kahlua flan, served with macerated berries "ceviche." We even would have loved the greaseless fried ice cream, dipped in beer batter and rolled in crushed corn flakes and roasted peanuts, if it hadn't been for that garlicky aftertaste -- which we suspect found its way onto the plate entirely by accident.

As for the meaning of Momocho, Williams says it comes from a character in a children's book. If that book has the appeal of Williams' restaurant, it's got to be a Mexican best-seller.


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