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.
9400 Snowden River Parkway
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.