On my first visit to one of Maine’s unbridged, yet well-inhabited islands, I chatted with a woman who told me she had to get to bed early for a medical procedure the next day. To complete it, she told me, she had to travel by ferry off-island, then by taxi. The journey promised to be quite a slog.
“That seems like a lot of trouble for something so straightforward,” I remarked. “Why not do it here?”
“Oh, there are no doctors on the island,” she replied.
Seeing the alarm on my face, my new friend tried to allay my concerns: “But don’t worry. If you get sick while you’re here, we have a veterinarian. That’s pretty close.”
I have been reminded of that conversation quite a bit this week, every time I look back at my notes from a recent meal at Freeport’s Azure Café.
Open since early 2003, Azure Café quickly became known for its fine-dining, multi-course, mostly Italian menu and romantic setting. “We actually had white tablecloths on the tables for the first year,” owner and general manager Jonas Werner told me. “But I think people were a little intimidated by the formality of the place, so we got rid of them, but we kept the food the same.”
During the subsequent dozen years, under former executive chef Christopher Bassett, Azure Café won awards from Wine Spectator, Yankee Magazine and TripAdvisor, as well as a 3 1/2-star review from this paper in 2014.
Things changed abruptly a little over three years ago, when Bassett departed to become a baker and manager at Slab Sicilian Street Food in Portland.
The owners chose not to replace him.
“No chef. It’s just my kitchen supervisors and me,” Werner said. “We come up with new recipes, and we’re trying to transform the restaurant and the menu into something we believe is more palatable to today’s diners, especially between 21 and 40 who are used to what I call chef-run restaurants. Places where they don’t allow for substitutions, you get more small plates and food is sent out of the kitchen when it’s ready.”
With brighter lighting, terra-cotta paint to replace olive drab on the walls and Pandora spinning a soundtrack called Hipster BBQ at lunchtime and Hipster Cocktail Party during dinner, Azure Café is jockeying to become both more casual and trendy – a cool, “chef-run” restaurant … with no chef.
Some of Bassett’s dishes remain on the menu and continue to impress. There’s a bitsy sliver of flourless chocolate torte ($7.25), lavish with bittersweet ganache and accessorized with a smoky, Knob Creek Bourbon caramel drizzle; the Insalata Mescolare ($7/$11), a simple spinach salad brightened up with a grilled-strawberry vinaigrette and a scattering of candied pistachios. Or the best item I tasted on my recent visit, a bountiful cioppino ($34) with a half-lobster, countneck clams and mussels plunged into a crimson broth that prickled with peppery heat.
Still, a good recipe only takes you so far, as my side dish of parmesan risotto ($7) showed. Glopped carelessly onto a small plate, the unbudging mound of rice was too oniony and fatty, having been loosened before service with cream, rather than an extra ladleful of vegetable broth. It’s hard not to imagine that with a good chef on the pass, this plate never would have made it into the dining room.
Alongside legacy dishes are newer additions designed, as Werner told me, to “appeal to a non-traditional Azure Café customer, a diner looking for something more interesting.” One, the chickpea fritters ($7), really just Werner’s take on falafel, were lovely: crisp little garlicky quenelles fried to a walnut-brown and served still steaming inside. The accompanying Sriracha aioli was also a smart way to add kick to the dish.
Much less successful, the chicken and waffles ($18) came from the “From Azure” portion of the menu that our server explained elliptically “means things that aren’t necessarily from Italy, or Maine, or anywhere.” Featuring boneless, double-breaded chicken breasts that were more like chicken fingers than traditional fried chicken, and cardamom-infused maple syrup on a too-sweet, excessively cinnamon-spiced waffle, this entrée tasted like a brunch dish engineered to appeal to an 8-year-old.
Judging from the mostly middle-aged patrons eating in the dining room with me, most of whom had opted for Italian-American dishes like eggplant parmesan ($22) and linguine with meatballs ($19.75), it seems safe to say that Azure Café’s recent bid to lure more youthful diners with its eclectic menu isn’t paying dividends yet.
Indeed, the youngest people in the place were the staff, and while they weren’t paying guests, several were active participants in the drive toward informality. In the open kitchen, one of the line cooks sported a beachy black tank top – no apron. Worse, the host, who wore droopy, unhemmed khakis and an unlaced pair of the filthiest sneakers I have seen outside of a tractor pull.
“Careful of the door in there,” he cautioned me on my way to the men’s bathroom. I tried pushing and pulling, but his warning was apt: The door refused to shut until it was slammed. Exhausted, I could only manage to wedge it roughly into the jamb. It would have to do, I reasoned. Not what I needed, but it was pretty close.
Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]