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Mojo's Workin' 

Michael Herschman's Tremont café casts a spell on hungry diners.

Mo' to love: Chef Michael Herschman and his art. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Mo' to love: Chef Michael Herschman and his art.

Restaurants like Mojo put the thrill back into dining out. That's a big claim, I know, but let's run down the checklist:

Concept? Innovative.

Food? To die for.

Service? Relaxed but unfailingly attentive.

Overall execution? Nearly flawless.

And all this, despite the fact that Chef/owner Michael Joseph Herschman ("Mojo" being his family-given nickname) wasn't even in the kitchen that night -- having broken his left hand from the thumb to the wrist in a football game only two days before -- and was pretty much limited to pacing around the dining room like a caged cheetah.

("He can be cranky, even when he isn't in pain," confided a waiter. "He's really been something else since Thursday.")

Culinary pinch-hitters included Pastry Chef Eric Lowrey, Sous Chef Jeff Anderson, and Chef Dennis Hackett, who did a masterful job filling in for the boss in Herschman's tiny open kitchen. In fact, it is impossible to imagine how anything could have been better, even if Mojo himself had been behind the plates.

The Tremont café, in a sturdy circa-1914 building hunkered down on what is becoming the most aromatic street corner in all of Cleveland, opened August 6 and is already attracting crowds of foodies, many of whom originally fell in love with Herschman while frequenting his former East Side spot, Cena Copa.

Mojo, however, is a much different scene. With its black linens, original terrazzo floor, and sleek cherry and stainless steel paneling set against black-painted walls and ceiling, the spot buzzes with a 1950s, New York-moderne style of urbanity. Despite the sophisticated decor, the atmo-sphere is casual and relaxed (blue jeans are OK), if noisy, and both the small dining room and the bustling bar -- which seems to attract some of the most lovely boys and girls in town -- make excellent perches for people-watching.

The menu, too, is a whole new concept for Cleveland. Rather than the usual breakdown of appetizers, salads, and entrées, Mojo serves nothing beyond 32 tapas-style "tasting portions" of what Herschman has dubbed "contemporary American cuisine with Latin, Asian, and Mediterranean influences, on little plates."

The chef says he hopes the smaller portions and the reasonable prices (nothing more than $12 and most in the $5-$6 range) will encourage diners to sample a variety of foods and flavors, to the limits imposed by their wallets and their waistlines. Still, portion sizes vary among the items, and a check of the prices is helpful to get some hint as to their relative size. For example, a $12 plate of succulent rare Angus beef with goat-cheese mashed potatoes and chipotle ketchup was as substantial as most traditional entrées, while a $3.50 serving of three sweet, spicy, and chewy plantain fritters with lemon cr&eagrave;me frâiche was just a tiny taste. Therefore, when putting together an evening's meal, the wise diner will choose two or three of the less expensive items and one of the more expensive plates, to get a proper introduction to Herschman's distinctive style and to avoid ordering more food than he or she may care to eat.

This is an important consideration, because, no matter how full one may be, it's not likely that one will have the willpower to avoid taking "just one more bite" of the irresistible creations that come out of Mojo's kitchen. Even the tiniest items -- like those little plantain fritters, artfully arranged on a beautiful piece of Asian-inspired pottery -- were huge in terms of flavor and eye-appeal, and some, like baked penne in a rich sauce of pecorino, Gouda, Stilton, and smoked mozzarella cheeses, with sweet caramelized shallots and a topping of aromatic fresh basil ("mac-and-cheese to die for," a dining companion called it), were like a full-body massage for the palate.

Even our breadbasket was differently delicious, with its thick slices of freshly baked, poppy-seed-crusted white bread and a tub of wondrous sweet-and-salty tapenade -- made from chopped kalamata olives, roasted walnuts, and garlic -- whose round, full flavor had every taste bud wide awake and clamoring for more.

In the course of two visits, we have sampled an array of Mojo's spellbinding delights. Notable among them was a plate of three large tiger shrimp in an ephemeral tempura-style breading so crisp and delicate that it seemed to melt, like cotton candy, on the tongue. In contrast to the dream-like batter, the shrimp themselves were firm, moist, and so perfectly cooked that they burst with fresh ocean flavor at every bite. Served with a warm, chunky peanut sauce for dipping, this little jewel of a dish had us gasping in delight.

A salad of impeccably fresh and peppery arugula, served in a blue-and-white striped pottery rice bowl and tossed in a warm sweet-and-sour balsamic vinaigrette, was another lesson in ardor. As though the wonderful flavors of the wilted greens, slices of roasted red onion, and a scattering of crisp sourdough croutons weren't enough, the salad entered a whole new realm with the addition of bits of smoky mozzarella cheese. Slowly melting from the warmth of the dressing, the tiny bits of cheese wrapped themselves around the greens with a piquant, creamy boldness that moved the salad out of the arena of mere food and into the world of sensuality.

Like the charred Angus beef and the baked penne, a serving of seared and roasted duck was among the menu's more substantial offerings. Accompanied by a pool of thick, fruity plum sauce for dipping, the four thumb-sized slices of rare duck breast were sweet and succulent, with a thin layer of crunchy-crusted fat along their outer edges. The duck was sided by a sweet-potato quesadilla -- a tender flour tortilla spread with buttery mashed sweet potato flavored with garlic and bits of feta cheese, then folded, lightly grilled, and cut into three warm, comforting wedges of richness that made a perfect match for the meat.

Vegetarians can do very well for themselves at Mojo, since the selections include a number of meatless items. But even if the only greens you normally savor are the ones that pop out of the ATM, you must not miss the sweet leaves of perfectly cleansed, gently sautéed organic baby greens that make up a side dish of Stilton-creamed spinach. Floating in a warm bath of cream and salty blue cheese, the spinach was toothsome, sleek, and satiny, without a hint of the metallic flavor or stringy texture that has put so many would-be Popeyes off this nutritious food.

But as good as all these little plates were, the item that continues to dance on my memory's tongue is a chewy, crunchy cornmeal-crusted "pizza" loaded with an assortment of pungent, woodsy wild mushrooms and scented with fresh chopped dill and a drizzle of garlicky white-truffle oil. Exotically earthy, a little sweet, and satisfyingly chewy, the pizza -- easily enough for an entire party to sample -- seems destined to haunt my hungry dreams.

And then . . . there was dessert.

Even when Lowrey is covering for the injured Mojo, he does himself proud with an assortment of luscious desserts that ranges from a simple black-plum-and-raspberry sorbet served with gingersnaps to a poached pear-and-pecan baklava with citrus-thyme sauce. A slice of pleasantly astringent Shaker Lemon Pie, set off against a pool of tart raspberry coulis, put an excellent ending to a meal full of big, rich flavors. Made in the traditional manner with paper-thin slices of whole, unpeeled lemon, the pie was both strikingly sour and notably sweet in every bite -- almost like a chewy lemon drop.

On the other hand, a seasonal dessert of pumpkin-hazelnut cheesecake with chocolate-bourbon sauce turned out to be the kitchen's one and only miscalculation. The round of stunningly creamy, mousse-like cheesecake, studded with bits of buttery hazelnut and perched on a thin ground-nut praline base, was flawlessly delicious. However, its delicate pumpkin flavor was nearly obliterated by the bitter, almost mushroomy taste of the bourbon-and-chocolate sauce that was drizzled over it. The oddly jarring flavor of that sauce made the dessert the only item at this otherwise glorious spot that I would hesitate to order again.

And order again I must. By my count, I have sampled less than half of the little plates on Mojo's menu, and working my way through the rest of them -- ahi tuna sashimi, roasted farm-raised salmon, and a grilled lamb chop with tamarind glaze among them -- is a priority. After all, there are only so many restaurants in Cleveland where you can rightfully use adjectives like "perfect," "flawless," and "extraordinary." And having found such a place in Mojo, I'm eager to go back for more.

Elaine T. Cicora can be reached at ecicora@clevescene.com.

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