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Loud Crowd-Pleaser

May 14, 2000|S. Irene Virbila

The easiest way to explain the dining experience at Mojo is to describe the after-dinner gantlet as you leave.

Ducking under handbags, squeezing between groups standing close enough to leave full-body imprints on the unwary, dodging the perils of cocktails in nervous hands, I finally find my way out of Mojo, the restaurant in the new W Los Angeles-Westwood hotel. In the lobby, young majas languish on divans, holding court. The music throbs; I picture some poor soul arriving to check into what he thinks is the fusty old Westwood Marquis and finding this live-wire scene.

Outside, behind a velvet rope, a block-long line of would-be party-goers waits patiently. A constant stream of SUVs loaded with young people rolls to a stop in front. Next to me, a phone chirps. "Where are you? You're at the W?!," the woman squeals, astonished. "I'm at the W!" Quelle chance!

The first few times I dined at Mojo, the scene was nothing like this. But I hear that the W in San Francisco is just as much a siren song for young dot-commers. It's part of a small chain that also has hotels in Seattle and New York. Each of the restaurants, though, has a different theme. Here it's Nuevo Latino.

To find Mojo's chef, the W tapped a local talent, David Slatkin. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, this Valley kid fell in love with the electric flavors of the Caribbean. After graduating, he headed to Florida and worked at YUCA in Coral Gables and at Chef Allen in North Miami. Then he was recruited to become opening chef at Descanso in the South Bay. While the food was good, a menu that required a glossary wasn't popular with the burger crowd. Even Slatkin's own restaurant, David's, which brought something of the Westside to Redondo Beach, couldn't overcome its suburban minimall location.

Now he's turned up at W at a time when Nuevo Latino cuisine has taken New York by storm and is enjoying belated success in L.A. After nearly a decade living and breathing the cuisine, Slatkin has a firm command of the idiom. Given the crowds thronging Mojo's spacious bar and overflowing into the restaurant, the food doesn't need to be nearly this good. After all, only a fraction of the crowd is actually eating.

The bar, drenched in red light, looks like a set for hell. The bartenders make a pretty good caipirinha--crushed lime and sugar cane bathed in Cachaca, the Brazilian white rum. Another drink, the Cuban mojito, is described as white rum, fresh mint and lime "muddled" with cane sugar and crushed ice. And everyone is drinking cuba libres and so-called martinis in every flavor under the sun. The sangria, however, is a nice surprise: not too sweet, with a slight spritz that makes it go down all too easily.

The "sea bar," bathed in blue light, offers a handful of seafood cocktails livened with a fiery sangrita sauce, avocado and freshly squeezed lime. You can get sweet prawns, octopus, lobster or Dungeness crab served in a tall sundae glass, or a combination of all four.

Slatkin also has three or four styles of "seviche," each distinctive. Bay scallops get a Veracruzan spin with fresh lime, punchy green chiles and a lively tomato salsa. Shrimp drenched in citrus juice, smoldering chile and tomato come in a halved coconut. My favorite may be the oddest-sounding one: coco tuna, flavored with fresh coconut milk, ginger and cilantro.

If price is no object, go with the Latin seafood platter, which includes raw shellfish along with "seviche" and other goodies in a dramatic presentation. A bowl of striped clams steamed in beer wears a thatch of flash-fried parsley. Duck tamale ropa vieja is more like a beautifully fluffy corn bread sauced with moist, shredded duck in a complexly spiced chile rojo. Plaintain pappardelle tossed with asparagus and white pozole is unusual, and delicious. And tasty conch croquettes come with a nice little salad of julienned vegetables squeezed with lime. Two soups--a fine black bean and sweet plantain--are poured into a bowl yin-yang fashion and garnished with rice cakes and roasted pepper strips.

Main courses seem to come from a different kitchen and a different sensibility. The best dish I had during an early visit, Yucatan duck, was discontinued. The other good dish is still there: a double-cut pork loin chop smoked just enough to hint at the taste of ham, decorated with a few lashings of green sauce and sitting in a spunky poblano chile salsa.

Roast chicken in a pistachio mole sounds lovely, but the chicken is flaccid and dull tasting. Char-grilled sirloin with chimichurri sauce is chewy and not very flavorful. And there's nothing crispy about crispy whole fish rellena, deboned and stuffed to bursting with crab meat.

The wine list would be better if it had more than just one or two examples of good wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina and Portugal.

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