ALL THINGS Cuban, from cigars to Fidel Castro's 75th birthday on Monday continue to capture Americans' interest, so it is no surprise that the cocktail creating the most buzz this summer is a Havana-born rum cousin of the American mint julep, the mojito.Ernest Hemingway was said to have drunk mojitos, as has any Cuban who ever imbibed, to believe the drink's lore. And now, New Yorkers from Manhattan to the East End are adopting the light, slightly tart libation. "They really love their mojitos," said Riccardo Traslavina, the Chilean-born chef who started serving mojitos two years ago with his Latin-inspired menu at Riccardo's Seafood House in East Hampton.

"It's really taking off right now in New York City." Lest it be consigned to a Latin-only niche, consider that the mojito is being ordered as frequently as the ubiquitous margarita this season at Sunset Beach, Andre Balazs' casual chic restaurant on Shelter Island. Last summer, the ratio of margaritas to mojitos was six to one. Unlike the margarita, which is sweet and salty as well as heavy on the tongue in either its frozen or on-the- rocks form, the mojito (pronounced moe-HEE-toe) is a tad sour and almost effervescent. It's composed of mint leaves muddled with lime juice and sugar, then topped with light rum (though some recipes call for dark) and a splash of club soda, and garnished with mint sprigs. (The American version, the julep, is making a comeback this summer, too.)

"It's certainly a refreshing and wonderful drink," said Dale DeGroff, consulting mixologist to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and formerly head bartender and beverage director at The Rainbow Room. Orders for Mojitos picked up, DeGroff said, when audience enthusiasm for "The Buena Vista Social Club," a 1999 documentary about Havana musicians, gave rise to curiosity about Cuban cuisine. Now, on his frequent travels he sees the drink on menus in big cities across the country, not just in New York. "Besides the general trend toward fancy cocktails that has been going on for several years, there is something about the mojito that makes it restaurant-friendly," DeGroff said. "All the ingredients are on hand. And, people are used to and like rum drinks." At Tierra Mar in Westhampton Beach, manager Jonathan Brady confirmed that the mojito is "very big." But equally popular is the drink's American counterpart, the bourbon mint julep, made at Tierra Mar with white creme de menthe and locally harvested honey.

Chef-owner Jimmy Bradley of Red Cat in Chelsea doesn't serve many mojitos - "It's not our bag. We're an American restaurant" - but it's another matter for the classic Southern version. "We serve a mint julep that we get a lot of requests for. It's basically the same as the mojito, except instead of rum it has bourbon." In quarters not directly caught up in the beeline that trends make between Manhattan and the East End, the mojito isn't causing much commotion, nor fear for the demise of the house favorite. "I make just a couple of them over a weekend.

RECIPES

Master Mixologist DALE DEGROFF, cautions against drowning the mojito in club soda. For that reason, his recipe calls for using a glass that holds no more than 8 ounces. He also said that almost any time a drink recipe calls for fresh lemon or lime juice, shake it to bring out the juice's effervescence. Another tip from the master: In drinks that have both sweet and sour ingredients (like the lime and simple syrup in the mojito), always use a tad more of the sweet than the sour. Dale DeGroff's Mojito 2 sprigs mint (use tender, young leaves) 1 ounce simple syrup (see note) 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice 1 1/2 ounces light rum 2 dashes Angostura Bitters 2 to 3 ounces club soda Muddle 1 mint sprig with the simple syrup and the lime juice in the bottom of a large mixing glass. (To muddle, press the mint lightly with a muddler or wood spoon to release flavor.) Add the rum and bitters and shake with ice. Strain over cracked ice in an 8-ounce glass, top with soda and garnish with mint. Makes 1 mojito. Note: Because sugar can make a drink grainy, simple syrup often is used instead in cocktails.

DeGroff's method of making simple syrup is to fill a corked bottle with equal parts water and sugar. Shake vigorously for about 1 minute until the sugar dissolves. The mixture will be cloudy. Let sit for 5 minutes for the mixture to become clear, then shake again before using. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Mojito recipes abound. Most list light rum, but the one used at Riccardo's Seafood House in East Hampton calls for dark, or golden, rum. "It's almost like a lemonade," Chilean-born chef Riccardo Traslavina said of the mojito. "You use a lot of mint, so you get a summery drink." That hasn't stopped his customers from drinking it year-round, however. Riccardo's Seafood House Mojito 10 fresh mint leaves Splash fresh lime juice 1 teaspoon sugar Ice 2 1/2 ounces golden rum Club soda Muddle mint leaves with a splash of fresh lime juice and sugar in a highball glass. Pack glass with ice and add rum. Stir well and top with a splash of club soda and garnish with mint sprig. Makes 1 drink.

 

August 15, 2001

Nothing Is Hotter This Summer Than the Latin Mojito

By Kari Granville STAFF WRITER