At 5-Month-Old Mojo in Fort Lauderdale, the Food Is as Creative as the Space | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Restaurant Reviews

At 5-Month-Old Mojo in Fort Lauderdale, the Food Is as Creative as the Space

Domenick Falcione has his mojo working.

It's working on his art — big, bold, uncompromisingly modern paintings that draw on a palette of colors alternately subtle and vibrant, splashed on canvas with rigorously disciplined abandon.

It's working on his food — flavors alternately bold and subtle, drawn from a multiculti culinary palate, thoughtfully combined with just enough abandon to make the familiar gleam new.

It's working, and working hard, on Mojo, his and partner Anthony DeMaio's 5-month-old restaurant on an anonymous stretch of North Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. That Falcione has such a way with both palette and palate is serious goddamned mojo indeed. It makes you wonder if maybe he's some New Age Dorian Gray, piecing off his soul to Beelzebub for the ability to shine in two fields that the rest of us would give a testicle and perhaps a kidney just not to embarrass ourselves in.

He's not.

Actually, he's a 53-year-old guy from Philadelphia who's spent much of his life cooking in and running restaurants in Philly and New Jersey and who after years of snowbirding moved with DeMaio to South Florida, took over the long-shuttered Beach House Grill, and re-created the first Mojo they opened ten years ago in chillier northern climes.

What the pair birthed in Mojo is a space that blends sunny country art gallery with chic Key West cottage. A self-taught artist who remarkably has never had a showing, Falcione gave the interior a bath in stark-white paint, from the tall, pitched corrugated sheet-metal ceiling to the walls, themselves laced with vivid turquoise faux-painted wainscoting. He and DeMaio installed comfy booths in one dining room, long banquettes with green-and-white-striped upholstery in another, and a tile-topped bar with a nifty little raised lounge area in-between, then festooned each with Falcione's eye-popping canvases.

All those arty sensibilities could have curdled Mojo's character, turning it into another Café Too Cool for You, like some oh-so-precious South Beach hot spot where the anorexic Eurotrash smoke unfiltered cigarettes and visibly wither from ennui while Twittering their boredom to a universe that doesn't give a damn.

It's not.

Actually, Mojo feels more like a cozy, unpretentious little neighborhood café, albeit one with thousands of dollars' worth of original art on the walls and jazz by the likes of McCoy Tyner swirling around the dining room. It's the kind of place where Brian the bartender and DeMaio at the host's stand engage in an evening-long six-way conversation with a quartet of vodka-swilling women hanging out at the bar, where strangers lean over without the slightest hesitation and advise "Try the crème brûlée — it's incredible," where even when Brian is inexorably slipping into the weeds and drinks are coming out with the approximate speed of a one-legged centipede on crutches, you don't really mind because everyone is so unreservedly, unalterably, unself-consciously nice.

Really. It's that kind of place.

So chill, relax, have Brian make you a martini, or sip a glass of good pinot noir from Sonoma's under-the-radar McMurray Ranch winery. Check out the art, check out the menu, settle in for a meal — you have nothing to lose but 20 points off your blood pressure from crawling along North Fed behind some nitwit who's apparently never heard that that rubber thing beneath his right foot is the friggin' gas pedal.

OK, deep breath.

It's worth starting with the ceviche of the day ($11), on one day a mix of shrimp and mahi with bits of red pepper, grape tomatoes, and three crispy flour tortilla triangles. The acid level was just right, the mahi meltingly tender, the shrimp a little tough, the chili heat carefully calibrated to leave a long, slow, pleasant burn after each mouthful. Good stuff.

A knob of excellent burrata ($14) starred in a caprese-style salad. Produced by Mozzarita in Pompano Beach, it displayed not the slightly sour tang of the Italian product but a rich sweet-cream flavor that was pure luxury on the taste buds. Tomatoes were, well... South Florida tomatoes in the midst of the crappiest weather in decades, but whole leaves of tarragon and a sprinkling of coarse sea salt added a welcome licorice note and iodine-like crunch.

If you want to just munch, you can stake out the bar, order off a short happy-hour menu that includes the obligatory dip — artichoke truffle ($10), cheesy but bland despite its fungi exotica, good mostly for sopping up excess alcohol — and other pub-grubby dishes. A pair of meatballs ($5) for one — beef, veal, and pork; tomato sauce; mozzarella — not bad but nothing special. An excellent fish sandwich ($5) for another, a fat piece of greaselessly fried cod with tartar sauce and the only coleslaw actually worth eating for at least 100 miles.

Bigger appetites go for bigger plates, like one evening's special of lamb chops with Asian barbecue sauce. Though not exactly cheap at $38, it was an entire rack, cut into thick chops still rosy in the center underneath a sweet-tart glaze of orange juice, hoisin sauce, Sriracha, and more. A drizzle of mint vinaigrette was an inspired addition, sharing plate space with crispy potato strings and a piquant Thai-style salad of shredded cabbage, lettuce, and carrots topped with crushed peanuts.

Zuppa de pesce ($30) was almost absurdly generous — crab, shrimp, mussels, clams, mahi — all gently cooked to their precise individual degrees of doneness. And because some of Mojo's customers aren't quite up on culinary Italian, the waiter kindly warned me in advance: "You know there's no pasta in this, right?"

Me: "Uh, that's why they call it 'zuppa.' "

Waiter: "I know, but some people think it's supposed to come with pasta."

Me: "Waiter, this sushi is raw!"

Waiter [smirking]: "I'll put in your order."

My zuppa arrived a good zuppa. It could have been a great zuppa if not for the zuppa part — a thick, intensely tomato-like, one-note broth that could have been channeling marinara.

Desserts were channeling lusciousness, though. Bourbon-spiked chocolate-walnut pie ($7) brought together three of the most important food groups — chocolate, nuts, booze — in a chewy-gooey marriage that demanded immediate consummation. Think pecan pie with an advanced degree in decadence.

Crème brûlée ($7) really was incredible, a shallow pool of vanilla-kissed custard like edible silk lurking deliciously under a bronzed and brittle caramelized sugar hat. What put it over the top was the accompanying pitcher of warm, barely sweetened strawberry-blackberry compote that you spooned on top of the crunchy crust and then broke through it into the silken custard and then scooped it all up and then... well, you just had to be there.

Like I said, Domenick Falcione has his mojo working. And his Mojo will work on you.