St. Louis loves trivia, right? Here's a question for you:
a) is a female rap duo from Atlanta.
b) is Colby Rasmus' Twitter handle.
c) are the grits at Mojo Tapas Restaurant & Bar.
d) should be shared in private between two people who love each other very much.
The correct answer is C — though possibly D, too, depending on your proclivities. You can order the "Sexy Gritz" as a side (where it is spelled with an S at the end, but the Z is funnier) or, as I did, as the "Garlic Chile Shrimp & Sexy Gritz." This smothers the grits with shrimp, sliced garlic and tomatoes in a moderately spicy sauce. It is decidedly not recommended for intimate encounters.
The grits themselves are blended with provolone cheese, which bolsters their flavor enough to stand out among the dish's other components and helps bind them together amid the sauce). Tasty? Yeah. Sexy?
I try to keep an open mind, but there is nothing sexy about provolone cheese.
Of course, "Sexy Gritz" have little to do with the grits in the bowl. Rather, they are part of Mojo's attempt — easily mocked, but also understandable — to inject pizzazz into the stretch of South Grand Boulevard better known for the diversity of its ethnic restaurants than for its sex appeal. The space (formerly the short-lived Parkside Lounge; before that, Erato Wine Bar) is tailor-made for this sort of restaurant, casual but chic, accommodating to both a party of twelve and a drop-in snack at the bar.
It is essentially one room, several times as long as it is wide, one wall exposed brick, the other painted in pale reds, with a subtle bird motif. The bar fronts the brick wall, while a banquette stretches along the painted wall. Booths in between offer more seating and act as a barrier between the two sides. Additional seating faces the front windows, which in turn look out onto sidewalk tables and the bustling South Grand streetscape. As you can probably guess, when Mojo is busy, it is exceptionally loud.
Owner and chef Eric Erhard has logged time at several area restaurants: Annie Gunn's, Harvest and Boogaloo. The influence of Boogaloo is apparent at Mojo. Here too there are Caribbean and Latin American influences, and here too the dishes are presented as small plates. All jokes about its name aside, the "Garlic Chile Shrimp & Sexy Gritz" are representative of Erhard's method: Tweak a familiar dish with bold flavors. Even garlic lovers might do a double take at the numerous penny-thick slices mixed into the sauce.
Calamari, that old warhorse, is fried in a light batter and served with a lime-chile aioli and a wedge of lime to squeeze to taste. Go ahead and squeeze that lime: It adds zest to an otherwise too- comfortable dish. Lime also plays a key role in the jerk chicken kebab, from the "Mojo on a Stick" section of the menu. Specifically, a sauce made of key lime juice and plain yogurt — sweet, tart and cooling — balances out the heat and sharpness of conventional jerk seasoning. Hummus is adapted two different ways, one a traditional chickpea hummus spiked with roasted pepper and goat cheese, the other a "hummus" of edamame.
Erhard shows restraint when necessary. Lamb sliders, three to an order, are served with, but not drowned by, an apricot-mustard sauce. This gives the ground lamb a nice accent but allows its natural flavor to carry the dish. Likewise, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese are, by definition, more or less the perfect snack, and here gain nothing more than a balsamic reduction.
There are a few missteps. Crab empanadas look good on paper: crab meat fried inside a wonton pocket and then drizzled with a mango-mustard sauce. But those I tried yielded little meat inside the light, crisp empanada shell. Relative to its serving size, a cup of gumbo offered plenty of shrimp, crawfish meat and andouille sausage, but the soup was too thin in body and flavor.
Ahi tuna seared rare with a mustard-seed crust was a failure of conception rather than construction. The tuna was a beautiful deep pink but lacked the pure, clean flavor you want from rare tuna, while the mustard seeds provided more texture than flavor. On the side was a slaw of cucumber and red onion in a lemon vinaigrette, and garlic crostini. The slaw's flavor was innocuous — certainly not enough to save the dish. The highlight was the garlic crostini, unfortunately.
Service too needs ironing out. Servers' visits are infrequent, especially problematic at a restaurant where diners are likely to order multiple courses. On a busy Saturday night, there was apparently confusion among servers over who took which table, with multiple diners waiting unacceptably long for their servers' first visit. The wine list is the standard array of white and red varietals, with most bottles priced under $40.
The dessert list includes a nod to nostalgia: an ice-cream sandwich made with chocolate-chip cookies à la the classic Chipwich (whose creator passed away in May). The sandwich is served in four wedges, with warm chocolate sauce for dipping. As with the original Chipwich, the ice cream is beside the point, generically sweet vanilla. The cookies are soft and chock-full of lightly bittersweet chips.
Other desserts are takes on the contemporary repertoire: bread pudding with banana, a brownie with dulce de leche. Indeed, stripped of all its, um, mojo, the menu reads like a checklist of restaurant must-haves: ahi tuna, calamari, pork belly, sliders. So you can hardly fault Mojo for trying to differentiate itself, even when it leads to such silliness as "Sexy Gritz."
Will it be enough to set it apart from the many other small-plate restaurants in St. Louis? That question is far more difficult to answer.