hen Jose Salazar talks about his grandmother’s kitchen in Medellin, Colombia, he doesn’t talk about a specific food. His memories are of wooden carts going by in the street, loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables. He talks about his grandmother’s food nourishing a multi-generational household filled with family and friends. His mamita was always at the stove, cooking all day, every day. He remembers the smells and the big pots and pans, but mostly he remembers the atmosphere, with people always pouring in and out, and her attitude.
“It wasn’t, ‘Look at all these people I have to feed,’ ” he says. “It was ‘Look at all these people. I’ll feed them.’ ”
Salazar is a continent away from his mamita and the hand-cranked mill she still uses to grind corn for arepas and empanadas, but his new restaurant, Mita’s, is a tribute to her spirit and to Spanish and Latin American food.
Two years into his independent restaurant venture Salazar in Over-the-Rhine, the chef has returned downtown, close to the Palace Restaurant at the Cincinnatian Hotel where he first came to local attention in 2008. Mita’s is the first dining destination to open in the new 84.51 Building, which houses dunnhumby’s corporate headquarters.
The chef feels a little “strange” leaving the friendly confines of his corner of 13th and Republic. “I don’t even get to go there,” he says. “After two years, that’s something that’s weird to not do.”
Eventually, he wants to split his time between the two locations, but for now, getting Mita’s up and running is taking all of his time. Megan Kelly, who runs the front of the house, jokes that a sales person on the phone asked when a good time to call the chef would be. “March,” she answered. “Call back about March.”
The setting at Mita’s couldn’t be more different than the OTR restaurant. The kitchen is incomparably larger. The glass-walled dining area, opposite Saks and Macy’s and right on the convention/hotel corridor of the central business district, isn’t stuffy or formal, but it is chic and polished. The key design elements — Moroccan-influenced tiles, concrete architectural columns and one-of-a-kind lighting — are beautiful, but lively and approachable. Purposely, there are no starched linen tablecloths.
“Latin culture is fun,” Salazar says. “A lot of people here travel — many business travelers, they’ve tried Spanish and Latin food. But to some people, this is their first chance to fall in love with these ingredients.”
Salazar mentions plantains as an ingredient that many North American diners don’t know, but some of the more intriguing dishes at Mita’s use familiar ingredients in new ways. One of the tapas dishes, for example, melds together simple roasted cauliflower and mission figs ($7). The figs give the savory dish a fruity earthiness and grace, accented by soft pine nuts and herbs.
The fresh emerald-green sauce for the short-rib empanadas ($11) is unexpectedly minty, and the beef is tucked into cornmeal crusts so light and crisp that it lifts the dish to the sublime. Empanadas can be doughy and heavy, but here, they’re perfect.
Pastry chef Brian Neumann has earned his chops at Salazar and is now making things sweet at both of the Salazar spots. His peach Melocotón ($9) is amazing — a thoroughly deconstructed cobbler, served warm, with soft-baked peach halves, gently crumbled rum-and-ginger cookies, honey-sweetened vanilla ice cream and unexpected cilantro syrup. Somehow, it magically turned out that there was just enough of each ingredient to include everything in every separate bite. Think of the math!
The bar at Mita’s is a great place to get familiar with mezcal, the underexplored spirit-of-the-moment, and the Mezcal Manhattan ($12) is getting lots of buzz. Central and South American influences abound, with the Caipirinha ($11) and Hemingway’s Papa Doble ($11), along with the Pisco Sour ($10). But if you’re in the mood for something lighter, the rosé sangria ($10) is bright and refreshing, with strawberries and a surprising undernote of thyme.
Compared to Salazar, Mita’s is vast, and the huge windows give diners a good view of pedestrians passing by. During daylight hours, they’re fairly opaque from the outside, but after dark, the restaurant glows. There are intimate booths as well as a private dining area that is the chef’s favorite part of the space. Seems like the perfect place to make a memory.