There are certain things you can count on when it comes to hotel restaurants. Usually, they look good, since hotels have both money to spend and a commitment to design, especially when it comes to highly visible spaces that represent the brand from the minute a potential customer steps into the lobby. Sometimes, there’s a certain recognizable sameness to the cuisine, since the hotel wants to be able to cater to the many different palates that might be staying under its roof. Beautiful and bland.
Thankfully, Mojito, the new restaurant in the Crown Plaza Tampa Westshore, is only bland occasionally.
The menu is a vibrant blend of Latin-inspired classics with a focus on Peruvian cuisine, one of this decade’s hottest restaurant tickets. Cocktails are pervasive, most laced with fresh fruit juice and bright herbs, energetic in ways those hipster speakeasy menus strive to avoid.
And the space itself is about as active as hotel design can accomplish, the carpet a riot of swirling colors, ceiling fans like copper airplane rotors and chairs covered in reddish faux-reptile skin. It’s almost enough to compensate for the rather subdued layout and beige walls.
A meal at Mojito begins with a series of dips and spreads, along with a Spanish take on antipasta. The dips are tasty enough, if a bit common, from serviceable hummus to bright olive tapenade to guacamole that manages to taste fresh despite the meager amount of citrus and cilantro. Better is a plate of thin-sliced Serrano and prosciutto, chunks of chorizo and bits of salty Manchego, each a perfect pairing with one of the bar’s tart and sweet concoctions.
That’s not to say the restaurant can’t cook when called upon to do so, shown in the perfectly fried lobster tail served with a rich papaya relish. Skip the homemade mustard on the side, which quickly overpowers the buttery lobster. The homemade tartar sauce — which comes with a sampler plate of deep-fried fish, shrimp, calamari and mussels — is a charmer, tangy and decadent and so much better than the usual red sauce served with plates like this.
Mojito’s tostones — crushed and fried plantains — create an exceedingly dry platform for sweet pulled pork, but the restaurant’s crab cake is surprisingly good, with big lumps of barely seasoned crab that work well with the sweet salsa dolloped on top.
Both of the restaurant’s ceviches are executed well, but the real star of the seafood section is boqueron. Anchovies are mixed with a sweet and tart tomato concasse and caramelized onions to make for a salty, briny, sweet and decadent take on bruschetta that puts the dips and spreads on the appetizer list to shame. More of this, please.
And more seafood, for anyone planning on a visit to Mojito, since the kitchen’s imagination seems to flee before the meat section of the menu. Quesadillas and Kobe beef sliders? Ho hum. Even the anticuchos – skewers of grilled meat – seem drab, with little of the aji pepper or mojo character they’re supposed to have.
If you do need a bit of beef, opt for the skirt steak, grilled to a crisp and slathered in an oily chimichurri that adds some richness to the otherwise lean meat.
But if you do the trip here right, big plates of food won’t be on the agenda since they don’t work as well with Mojito’s crowning glory — the drinks. The Pisco Capitan is the sort of drink you can almost consume as a meal, fortified with egg whites and topped by a frothy lime foam. Mezcal comes with lime and grenadine in the Lazy Daisy. Thyme Tango, a superfruit infusion of acai vodka, thyme and blueberries, will boost your immune system while killing your liver.
There’s also the Citripirinha, made with cachaca and grapefruit juice for an escape from the bar’s lime obsession, or the smoky and dark Hav-A-Tampa made from rum, vanilla-spice liquer and cigar bitters (whatever they are). And, oh, yeah, the mojitos aren’t bad either.
Although Mojito still has some of that hotel aura sticking to its beige walls and occasionally humdrum food, those cocktails might be its ticket to non-guest success. Considering Tampa’s cocktail culture, this bright splash of citrus and South American spirits — along with food that’s tasty enough — has its own, uncrowded niche.
There are a lot of people who will drink to that.