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Funky ambience and menu items abound at Cafe Mojo

CAFE MOJO

94 Massachusetts Ave., Boston.

By Aaron R. Prazan

What is a Mojo? Doors fans have asked this question for years. Who knew the answer lied in a funky little bistro at 94 Massachusetts Ave.? Cafe Mojo is almost as much an attitude as it is a dining room. Entering the Mojo immediately lowers the heart rate and clears the mind. A brightly colored Miro-esque mural covers the back wall. With the cool jazz in the background, polished mahogany everywhere, and the Edward Scissorhands style furnishings, the rest of the room is mellow. Indeed, all is casual; and you can wear whatever color you want, as long as it's black.

To be sure, the flavor of the room is a prelude to that of the food. First, the menu is almost as esoteric as the decorating. Nuances of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and many American regional cuisines abound. In the course of a meal, there was hummus, couscous, hearty beef stew, polenta, penne, and pancetta, to name a few. To most patrons' delight, Mojo tries very hard to use fat sparingly, but makes up for it with exotic flavor mixtures and unusual ingredients. Creative vegetarian dishes dot the menu also.

The uncommon combinations of ingredients make for an exciting meal, but sometimes seem contrived. For example, I tried two appetizers, Sweet Potato Gnocchi and Vegetable Chips. The gnocchi, which are small Italian potato dumplings, were made with tender sweet potatoes and had a wonderful new texture. They had been broiled, creating a crispy crust. The effect was almost like sweet melted cheese and was worth trying. On the other hand, the Vegetable Chips were not so successful. Ripple-cut beets, sweet potatoes, and Idaho potatoes were fried in oil until crispy. Although I applaud the chef for creativity and a sun dried tomato ketchup that was to die for, the potato chips were actually the best. Though novel, the dish wasn't worth ordering.

Truly, the entrees at the Mojo reminded me of an old saying about pizza and sex: "When it's good, it's really, really good; when its bad, its still pretty good." I sampled the Beef Stew over Polenta, Penne al Amatriciana and a Grilled Tuna Sandwich with lime and ginger. The stew was light, with enormous blocks of what appeared to be prime rib cuts. Sweet caramelized onions and fresh greens mingled with stewed potato and carrot slices to round out the dish. Underneath all this was a bed of polenta, which is an Italian corn meal recipe. I can't complain about any part of the stew, for it held my interest and made me forget that the broth had virtually no fat in it.

The penne was almost as satisfying. I was happy to find that Mojo is one of the few restaurants around that fearlessly serves al dente pasta and not the mush that is so common. The pancetta, a spicy Italian bacon, was also a welcome addition. My only complaint was the lack of moisture. Too much starch with not enough sauce left me calling for more water. Overall though, the penne was a great meal with depth of flavor and aroma.

The last dish I tried was the grilled tuna sandwich. It came on a chilled plate with three unlikely sides of couscous, orzo pasta salad, and a pureed sweet potato salad. When ordering, I had a mental picture of a fresh filet of tuna marinated and grilled over searing heat. Actually, it was a grilled tuna salad sandwich. At first I was disappointed, but soon found out that the salad was homemade and the vegetables were extremely fresh and ripe, a rarity for Boston in the winter. As a light alternative to the entrees, the sandwiches at Mojo are just the thing for a weekday lunch or early supper. The triad of sides Mojo serves up also sends me to cloud nine, but have turned off some of my more timid friends.

Of course, desserts bear the same eclectic variety as the rest of the menu. Try poached pears or the chocolate torte. I had vanilla bean ice cream with a Cabernet and apricot sauce. It was good, but I kicked myself for not trying something less mundane. Very strong coffee with no aftertaste ended the feast. Iced tea is sadly not an option at Mojo, but such coffee will appease my caffeine addiction anytime. Certainly, it was a fitting end to an above average meal.

In general, Cafe Mojo is a great haunt. For anyone who is not afraid of something new, I highly recommend it. The prices hover around ten dollars, and it is a great place to take a date. It's fifty yards from the Hynes T stop right off of Newbury St. Put down your problem sets and experience this facet of Boston dining enlightenment. Coming soon: Jose's, The Cottonwood Cafe, and Grill Fish.