Monday, November 9, 2009

Azul 17 And The Issue Of Not Great Food

To find great food anywhere, you need to pick and choose -- and be willing to accept some disappointment.

At Azul 17, you would do well to sit at the bar, try something to drink, and snack for a while on the Tuna Azul, the ceviche or the tres leches cake. I really want the new Columbia restaurant to succeed, but we have had a bit more disappointment that we had hoped.

This is still a classy, interesting restaurant. It aims high, and the kitchen delivers with some delicious salsas and some small plates as it did on our first visit. I liked the Tuna Azul, and Mrs. HowChow liked the tortilla soup. We also liked the "aguas frescas" -- mixtures of fruit and water that they make with the same care and fresh ingredients that they use for the margaritas. Blackberry puree and lime juice made for a thick, refreshing drink. But that's a short list when you spend $70 on dinner, especially when the night includes waiting 20 minutes past our reservation and mistakes like not mentioning that almost everything costs extra. By the end, I was facing a waitress who was asking me if she should take a surprise $3 off my bill. At that point, I just wanted to go home.

Again, I'm worried that I hit Azul 17 on an off night. There were flashes of flavor. Ironically, the $3 surprise was for a salsa sampler that highlighted the meal, offering a high-end contrast of fiery
habanero with a minty cilantro. But those were exceptions. Apparently, the kitchen was short-staffed. That's how they explained making four couples with 7 pm reservations sit in the entry and stare at a half-empty restaurant for 20 minutes and more. The hostesses were really nice when they said they would seat us when the kitchen could take our order. Next time, seat us, let us pay you for drinks, and maybe comp us an extra basket of chips to get through the delay.

But a short-staffed kitchen doesn't explain the problem dishes or the service. The Tuna Azul was seared tuna served with a bunch of cooked vegetables. Quite good if you cut a piece of tuna, then fork up with some onions and tomato and a dab of the sauce. But our food was dropped without comment, and I started with a fork swirled in what turned out to be caramelized onion. An unpleasant mouthful. In the same way, the chicken mole was a complete disappointment. Mole on a half-chicken sounds interesting. But we ended up butchering a chicken covered in a thin layer of mole. The layer turned the skin gooey, and it wasn't enough to actually flavor all the meat. I tried to politely butcher a leg and thigh. The meat was fine; the skin and
gristle were unfortunate. Mrs. HowChow started on the breast, but gave it up as bland and moved on to the three crispy, sweet plantains -- flavored perfectly, but not oily. That's a nugget of inspiration on a $19 plate next to chicken, some forgettable rice, and three corn tortillas that were cold and seemed to serve no purpose at all.

I have been thinking about not-so-great food recently because Howard County lost the Margherita Wars. The Pizzablogger instigated a humorous contest last month to compare pizza in DC and Baltimore. He has been too overwhelmed to post the results, but I'm sure that we didn't win because our mid-afternoon stop at Coal Fire turned up not-so-great pizza. (Click here for the Pizzablogger's Margarita War posts.) Okay pizza, but dried out in the super-hot oven. Everyone politely ate a slice, but the PB pointed out the problems and noted that he didn't see Steve, the general manager who had baked the pie that the PB raved about in June.

Coal Fire has kicked off the most divergent comments on HowChow -- some people rave; some seem enraged. At Coal Fire, I was thinking about why I wasn't enraged when Steve joined our table. The poor guy had just taken a little time away from the oven. One of his apprentices had dried out our pizza. Steve and the PB examined our leftovers and talked pizza particulars. Steve couldn't have been nicer. No excuses, and an entertaining description of his new challenge of making mozzarella so that Coal Fire can serve house-made cheese on every pie. That lunch emphasized to me how the best small restaurants balance on a handful of people with real aspirations. The motivated ones are working -- often every day of the week -- to turn out great food, and a single bad night can drive away an entire room of customers (or an unreasonable blogger).

Somehow, my response to Azul 17 comes back to my $70 bill. I have eaten great pizza at Coal Fire, and we'll go back again. In the same vein, I have overlooked minor failures at places on my "best of Howard County list" like Bon Fresco and Mango Grove. But Azul 17 is a place where most women wear high heels on a Saturday night and where the only items highlighted by our server were $50 tequila shots. I want Azul 17 to succeed. I love the space and the cool design. I love the aspirations of modern Mexican cuisine. But like Aida Bistro, Tersiguel's or Bistro Blanc, they set the bar high with both price and expectation.

The question, in the end, is how many chances you can afford to give a place that seems hit-or-miss.

If you want more about local restaurants, click here for the 2009 "best restaurants" in Howard County.

As I have said, I want Azul 17 to succeed, and we may have seen a bad night. The Sun's Elizabeth Large gave Azul 17 two-and-a-half stars yesterday in a review that I studiously didn't read until I had written my own post. Large shared my accolades for the tres leches cake and for the ceviche and the grilled cactus that we had on an earlier visit. She also loved the carnitas patria entree enough that I'll be certain to order it if we go back. I notice that Large didn't write about the tacos, which we ordered and were so unremarkable that I forgot to mention them in the post. The Sun's photo has two beautiful tacos. Ours were mushy and colorless. I wonder if ours were served without enough chopped vegetables.

Azul 17
9400 Snowden River Parkway
Columbia, MD
410-309-9717

NEAR: This is on the right if you're driving south on Snowden River. It's in the second shopping center after Oakland Park Boulevard -- in the center with Akbar and Pho Dat Thahn and not in the one with House of India.

24 comments:

Kevin said...

I think your worries about Azul are pretty well founded. Looking back on my meal, it was kind of forgettable. I was pretty disappointed by the tacos. Though the ceviche and tres leches cake you mentioned were pretty good. I need to hit up one of those taco trucks, I do indeed love a GOOD taco al pastor.

Nakiya @ Taste of Baltimore said...

First of all - a $50 tequila shot!?!?!! That exists???

That worries me that the tacos are forgettable, since I like to try those first to get a feel for a restaurant.

Also, I agree with Kevin. Al Pastor tacos are HEAVEN!

jim said...

It's unfortunate the experience wasn't better but the place seems empty every time we go to Pho Dat Thahn (a small misspelling in the end of your post, the third word is T*h*ahn, not T*r*ahn.).

Stephanie T said...

I'll keep this in mind if I want to burn $70 to see whether I'll like something...

Jim, isn't it actually Pho Dat Thanh?

Brandon Miller - Milhouse44 said...

There has been no reviews that make me want even think about trying Azul out. I'll stick with El Azteca and my taco truck tacos.
Mmmm.....Tacos.
Al Pastor is good it is my second seed to #1 Taco de lengua.

Nakiya @ Taste of Baltimore said...

Where are these taco trucks that people keep mentioning? I don't know of any!

Snoopy said...

Hi! I ate as Azul on Friday night with my husband. My experience was not too bad, though I did find them to be expensive. I had a Mexicana Margharita which was really good. My husband and I shared the traditional gauc which was delicious, although the price was pretty steep. We also tried the cactus small plate though I cannot remember the name. It was very good. My husband had the enchiladas colorado dish, he really liked it. I had one of the chicken enchilada dishes. It had a black bean sauce. It was really good. Just had my leftovers. The amount of rice for $3 was really small, but we really loved all of the food.

My 2 biggest complaints were that the waitress mentioned she would wait to seat us so our food would not take long... which was odd. And, our main dishes came about 2 minutes after the appetizer. This really was frustrating because our table was so small, it was hard to have so many plates around.

Overall, I think we will return. Everything tasted fresh and the atmosphere was nice.

pizzablogger said...

@Nakiya : The taco truck usually parked on Broadway (going North), near the intersection of Broadway and Baltimore St is pretty good. Of course, the fresh tortillas and fresh tacos from Tortelleria on Eastern are as legit as it comes. The best in the city I've had, bar none, as in fuhgetaboutit!

BTW, there is a $120 shot of tequila at Blue Agave in Fed Hill.

@HowChow: I bet the tequila at Azul 17 is consistently good! :)

The consistency of great food is best measured by the least passionate person who handles food in a kitchen, IMO. If someone cooking or preparing food in a kitchen does not have serious passion about food and/or advancing a career in the industry, an owner would be well served to punt them.

As far as pizza, it's no coincidence that the very greatest pizzerias often have an owner, who is insatiable about improving his/her product over time and that owner is the only person who ever makes the dough and fires the pizzas. When they are sick or on vacation, they simply close the establishment!

Overall, pizzeria or not, I strongly feel trying to cater to the widest demographic is a recipe for mediocrity.

wordbones said...

HowChow,

Mama Wordbones and I ventured over to Azul 17 on Saturday night. We had the Rojo Guac for an appetizer and were generally pleased. She ordered the Mexapolitan Martini and rates it one olive (out of a possible three). I had the Mexican Espresso Martini and I'll give that three olives. I had two.

I had the Carnitas Patria which was good but a tad on the dry side. She had the Enchildas de Jaiba and was underwhelmed.

I've also had lunch there and enjoyed one of the best Cuban sandwiches I've had in a long time.

Bottom line, I agree with you on wanting a place like this to succeed. They offer a refreshing change to standard Mexican fare.

I'll go back, at least one more time, if only for the Cuban and the Mexican Espresso Martini.

-wb

Anonymous said...

Scratching this one off my list. Lots of other options with superb margaritas and Latino cuisine for half the price. And options for SUPERB Cuban sandwiches in the next county too. Service is key and if the price is high and service, well, sucks, that's a dealbreaker.

dzoey said...

Sounds like growing pains to me. We've been a couple of times and we find the "small dishes" to be good, but the entrees to be hit-or-miss.

The service problems are unfortunate and feel like "new restaurateur" who is focused on food/drink and not the whole experience.

That said, my first experience with service there was great, but they hadn't opened yet. Our other experiences have been more "oh...he's still learning" type of experiences - not bad, just not polished.

I think that's the issue here. Azul is going for the high end but does not quite understand that the high end experience is food, drink, surroundings, and service - all of them.

I would still go back - I really like the small dishes and applaud the chef's creativity, even if not all dishes work.

Anonymous said...

Growing pains at the customer's expense and time? Er, no thanks.

HowChow said...

@Nakiya --

Ignore that Pizzablogger and his Baltimore taco truck.

Here, people are generally talking about the series of taco trucks on U.S. 1 in Howard County. My favorite is Pupuseria Lorenita's, which normally parks on the east side of U.S. 1 just north of Rte 175. However, there are probably four or five trucks between Rte 100 in Elkridge and Main Street in Laurel. There is also a new spot that I'll post about later this week -- tacos in the takeout deli in the Shell station at U.S. 1 and Rte 175. Spectacular.

Nakiya @ Taste of Baltimore said...

Thanks for your help!!!! I want a taco so badly now.

pizzablogger said...

I'm paiting a red gaping maw, ala WWII fighter jets, on the front of the Baltimore Taco truck and am gonna come barrelling through HowCo looking for you! :)

Leasol said...

Another review from Howard County Living a new bimonthly lifestyle magazine for Howard County.

http://www.howardliving.com/Dining.aspx?DiningID=55

Josh K said...

My Wife and I went to Azul this weekend. I grew up in Los Angeles and I have a pretty high standard for Mexican food. I had a great meal and Margareta. I had the chicken mole and we shared some guacamole. My wife had a salad with shrimp.

I would go back in a heartbeat and would bring friends.

teamdewitt said...

Went to Azul 17 on Saturday night, and can confirm that I will never go back. The food was beyond bland and bordered on atrocious! When we finally got our drinks (watered down margarita and sangria) we had to ask the waitress twice to give us menus. The taquitos were horribly bland, and the crab empanadas were soggy and tasteless. I felt like I'd been robbed after spending $68 on our meal.

kirkpasf said...

We finally got around to trying Azul 17 tonight. They were not busy & we were seated promptly (6:45ish). We tried the Queso Fundido w/chorizo, Trio de Sopes, Cesta de Empandas, Ensalada de Jicama(1/2), and Enchiladas de Mole Colorado. The salad dressing was so hot I couldn't taste the other elements, and I said as much to the waiter when he noticed I hadn't finished it. My husband finished his enchiladas, but thought the mole didn't stand up to El Azteca's. The other items were good, we brought home leftovers, but not particularly noteworthy. Since it was Monday, I got a $5 Traditional Margarita - Now THAT was worth the trip!

AlPal3 said...

I had a late lunch here a few weeks ago. I went online to check out the menu because I was trying to decide were I wanted to go and the small plate menu literally made my mouth water. Unfortunately when I arrived I was given the lunch menu. I guess I should have figured the small plate menu wouldn't be available, but I didn't see it noted on the website. I was a little disappointed by the lunch menu, but like said that could just be high expectations. It just didn't seem nearly as interesting as the small plates and it's pretty short and limited. We ordered the Traditional Guac made table side to share and it was really good, but the person I was sharing with doesn't like spicy food so we had to compromise when she asked how we like it. Maybe it's just me but Guac for just me, made just the way I like it, is awesome. Guac made for me and other people, made according to our compromise, isn't quite as awesome. Having said that the Guac was good, the service was great, the drinks were great, and the food was really good. I ordered the Beef Chilaquiles just to get something different and it turned out to be excellent. I highly recommend it and I would also tell you to ask for the Habanero Salsa which is really tasty if you can stand the heat.

icolithic said...

Azul was a disappointment.

Fusion-deconstruction is difficult to accomplish, and unfortunately – Azul fails to do that. The tastes are the same that you'd get at any chain Tex-mex restaurant albeit prettier in presentation.

For a true fusion experience (and Tequila) I'd suggest the Blue Agave in Baltimore... just avoid the overly sweet molé.

I'm still hoping that the region will produce a good Mexican restaurant (not even NY city impresses. Until it does, I'll stick with Lilly's and my own kitchen (and the ocassional trip to Zapata's).

Note: there is no shortage of pupusarias and South American restaurants ... the "authentic" Mexican restaurants are still elusive.

TheLtlrdhdgrl said...

I used to be a huge fan of Azul 17...until this evening.

Hubby and I went with Groupon in tow to Azul expecting the usual - good food, excellent service and reasonable prices. Not so.

Ahora, Azul es muy, muy caro. Even with Groupon, the bill came to $70. WTH???? We got one appetizer (basically because they dissed us on the chips and salsa), two normal entrees and two traditional margaritas. No frills. So $70 - for black beans and rice??? Yep - that's what it amounts to.

Azul has totally raised their prices. The Azul favorite dinner entrees are north of $20. Perdon? In Columbia??? What gives? It's not like Azul is Elkridge Furnace Inn or The Kings Contrivance.

Our waiter sucked. The restaurant was practically deserted (this would never have happened in their heyday - but now, I totally understand) and he waited forever to take our drink order. I guess he went for a smoke or ordered fresh tequila from Mexico because we were at the table for about 20 minutes before we got the drinks. And of course, we never got chips and salsa, which is a cardinal sin when you eat in a Mexican establishment.

Anyhow, I'm pretty disgusted it cost $70 with a Groupon. Even though the food is good, I'll be saying, Adios!

Anonymous said...

I must agree with most of the above comments that Azul 17 is awful! Non-existent service and ridiculously over-priced for tiny portions of bland food. We had to wait 20 minutes to be seated (in a pretty empty restaurant), 20 minutes for water, 20 more minutes for a bottle of wine. Waitress couldn't open the wine and was mangling the cork so hubby had to take over. She never once came back after serving our meals to refill waters or sodas. We had to flag down other servers to find her. Once we finally got our appetizers (after about a total wait of an hour), the entrees came out a few seconds later. I REALLY hate when the timing is so far off. Now for the food - my salmon tacos were comprised of three tiny 1/4-inch cubes of salmon in a tortilla - wow! How exciting! I don't even remember what my husband, son and daughter had, but nobody was impressed. Portions were so small we had sandwiches when we got home. And the prices - $14 for them to mash a 79-cent avocado! Puh-lease!

Hage no hige said...

Hi! I haven't really read this blog before, but I've gone to Azul every once in a while for the past two years, and my neighbor just told me he'd heard mixed reviews on this site.

The service is definitely spotty. I mean, I've worked in the service industry in the past, but there's a definite difference in quality depending on which server you get. Some have been inattentive, some have even been arrogant, but others have been great! Their staff seems to be constantly changing, too - there are only three faces I recognize anymore from the first time I went there. Hopefully this means they try to weed out the worse ones?

The thing that's kept me coming back more, especially lately, is their happy hour. The margaritas are really good, and when you bring it down to $6 for a mango one? I'm willing to pay a buck or two more for what I think is a lot higher quality. Also, their guacs and little plates are all half price! 10 bucks is kinda a lot for the guac normally, even tableside, but 5 bucks is pretty good. And while I miss some of the old little plates, they have some good ones - I especially like the shrimp empanadas with pumpkin seeds (it's weird, but works well), and the shrimp and corncakes plate. I like going to happy hour when it's not quite as crowded, and I wish I could tell you which days those are, but some Tuesdays have been packed at that time, and some Fridays are dead.

I honestly like this restaurant, and they've been trying to improve over time, so I really hope they keep it up. Also, for bargain-searchers, there's a Living Social deal for them right now.