As a line cook, I would often receive a request for a substitution, i.e. potato salad instead of fries. Not a big deal, really; happens all of the time in restaurants all around the world. Sometimes these requests were made for dietary reasons, other times to avoid allergy issues. It was all good, although one time I had to ask the server to double check the request when the ticket stated 1 quesadilla, 86 (remove) the cheese. Since the root of the word was queso, Spanish for cheese, I wanted to make sure the guest understood they would be receiving a grilled tortilla stuffed with a few sauteed vegetables. They did so that’s what they got.
In the food service business, it all about food and service. To survive, you have to serve great food and offer even better service. Makes me wonder why Burger King has just dropped it’s slogan Have It Your Way. I guess you can’t have it your way anymore?
Regardless of BK’s reasoning, the point is this: successful restaurants have to have a great concept, a menu to satisfy everyone from Atkins-style carnivores to vegan/gluten free Eat to Live folks, and flawless execution in both the kitchen and the front house. No secret to many of you, but finding a place that hits the mark in all categories is becoming more difficult these days.
Azar’s Market & Cafe (subtitled Natural Foods and Mediterranean Specialties) is just such a place. Recently, we had an awesome dinner at the Virginia Beach restaurant, located in the Hilltop area. I had always been a fan of the Norfolk cafe of the same name and found the sister restaurant to be equally as nice, with attentive service that was not over-intrusive and excellent food plated in a most appealing fashion. And for a Saturday early-evening, the place was not too crowded making the ambiance perfect for conversation.
While I usually order the can’t-miss felafel, this particular evening I decided to be adventurous and order something new (for me.) Taking advice from the server, I chose the Maza appetizer. The menu will tell you the Maza serves 2 – 4 people, but the dish is used as an entree quite often. I gave it a try. Here’s what was presented:
Hummus – made from chickpeas, of course, and seasoned with tahini, not too much lemon, and a bit of garlic. The best in the city, IMHO.
Baba Ghanouj (pronounced bah bah gah-noosh) – think hummus made from roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas.
4 Stuffed Grape Leaves – available either cold or warmed, these are stuffed with rice, vegetables and chickpeas.
Tabouli – a light salad of chopped parsley, mint, tomato, and onion, tossed with some Bulgar wheat, lemon juice, olive oil and sea salt.
Lebane Tzatziki – a dab of dip made from strained yogurt (Greek yogurt before it was cool to be Greek yogurt,) garlic, a touch of mint and olive oil.
The plate was garnished with olives (watch out for those pesky little pits) and bite-sized slices of pickle and tomato.
All this was served with a basket of light, soft but not too chewy grilled flatbread.
I wasn’t a fan of the baba ghanouj. I am sure it was made correctly, and Azar’s version is probably among the best around. I’m just not a baba ghanouj kind of guy.
Everything else was a hit to my taste buds. When the server came to remove our dinner plates, she saw I had only tried the B.G. and commented that next time I could always ask for a substitute. More hummus, more grape leaves, whatever I wanted. This substitution policy was not a one-off deal made in an attempt to garner a higher propina (tip, sorry – thinking in Spanish for a moment) but the normal restaurant policy.
Great food and even better service, remember? This is what it looks like.
And for you vegans out there? This means you can order the Maza and sub more hummus for the Lebane Tzatziki dip.
For carnivores, split the Maza since it’s really a large appetizer plate, and order one of the grilled kebab plates.
Azar’s has great food and even better service – for everyone.
And no matter what you order for lunch or dinner – you have to get the pistachio baklava for dessert. I think it’s a law. If it’s not, it should be.