Mediterranean food is hot these days, and with good reason. The genre covers a large geographic area; the cooking styles are simple and straightforward; and the ingredients found along the lovely sea are fresh, plentiful and varied.
What more could a chef—or diners—ask for?
A quick perusal of the menu at Azul, at the Westin La Paloma, reveals good use of the bounty of this area. Serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, Azul offers the proverbial something for everyone. On our visits, the kitchen put out some good food—but the service and atmosphere left something to be desired.
For starters, there is the charcuterie ($15), which we were given a taste of because there was a long delay between courses. The plate held some slightly spicy Spanish chorizo, a slice or two of serrano ham, olives, two kinds of cheese and a thin breadstick. All the textures and tastes—salt, spice, sweet, chewy and crunchy—came together nicely.
This dish was prepared at a gleaming, steaming prep station which sits squarely in the center of the lower level of a long, narrow dining room. Located on two levels down a series of gleaming staircases, the dining room is sparsely decorated and relies heavily on the view of the nearby mountains from huge, arched windows for décor. That's all fine and dandy during the day, but once the sun sets, all you can see are the lights from the swimming pool. The fact that we were seated smack-dab next to a pillar didn't help, either.
We also tried the calamari frito ($11) and the zucchini galette ($11). The two galettes were sprinkled with pine nuts and served atop a very mild tzatziki sauce. The cherry pepper/cherry tomato salad served on the side was tangy and sweet, and propped up the mild flavors on the rest of the plate.
The calamari pieces were the smallest I've ever seen—each just a little larger than a good-sized pea. However, they were fried nicely and tossed with garlic and a white balsamic honey reduction (there's also a cherry pepper aioli served on the side; we mixed it all in); this was a nice take on that ubiquitous dish. We didn't mind the size, but it seems the chef did, as later in the meal, the server apologized and explained that the chef wouldn't charge us for the dish. (Apparently, the kitchen didn't get the calamari the chef had ordered.)
And that brings us to the service: It is apparent that everyone is trained to welcome out-of-towners (when asked, we said we were from Niagara Falls), as the staff is full of suggestions of places to visit and how to get there. But no one, during either visit, seemed vested in the actual restaurant service. As an example, our server couldn't explain how the evening special was prepared and didn't know what cheeses were served on the charcuterie plate—and didn't bother to find out. On our second visit, for lunch, service was painfully slow, even though the place was practically empty. At these prices, I expect more polished—and caring—service.
Certain plates can be either a starter or an entrée, depending on the meal. The fire-roasted garlic shrimp ($14) are a "taste" on the dinner menu, but a lunch entrée. Five large, tender and slightly spicy seasoned shrimp were served alongside a huge mound of french fries (called pomme frites, in keeping with the Mediterranean theme). The dish was good, but nothing boggled the taste buds. The same could be said of the cannellini and escarole soup ($7)—it was good, but not great.
The other entrées fared much, much better. The Tuscan braised short rib ravioli ($21) was the epitome of savory. The pasta was filled with tender, shredded beef; the Chianti demi-glaze sauce popped with flavor. It was all topped off with wilted rainbow Swiss chard, crisped pancetta and just a dab of porcini. Lovely!
Another winner was the Mediterranean pork chop Milanese ($21). The aromas that wafted from the dish were reminiscent of an old-time Italian kitchen. The chop had been frenched and was then dipped in fresh, seasoned breadcrumbs; it was tender and juicy. The sides—gorgonzola-laced polenta, broccolini and a pomodoro sauce—mimicked the Italian flag and worked in tandem with the pork. The walnut butter got a little lost, but all in all, this was a fine dish.
The chicken fra diavolo ($15), though not as hot as it should have been, had a nice flavor. Tender pappardelle pasta was tossed with pulled chicken, peas, pancetta, mascarpone cheese, tomatoes and plenty of red pepper flakes, which added plenty of spiciness.
The desserts were beautifully presented, but unfortunately were not winners. We shared the warm molten chocolate torta ($10) and the Azul baked meringue sandwich ($9). The former was a small cake with a gooey chocolate center, served with crème anglaise and hazelnut gelato. The latter dessert was nice to look at but almost impossible to eat; the cookie was just too crumbly.
Every restaurant needs a "voice" that grows from the food, the room, the décor, the service and the philosophy behind the place. We enjoyed the food at Azul, but we walked away with an empty feeling—because Azul hasn't found its voice just yet.