Azar’s Market and Cafe

The Maza Appetizer from Azar's.

The Maza Appetizer from Azar’s.

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.

The verdict?

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.

Happy eating!




Review: Saffron Indian Bistro – Virginia Beach VA


Virginia Beach, Virginia is a nice little beach town that features the typical array of seafood restaurants, most of which offer fried shrimp, fried fish, fried oysters, fried scallops, fried clams and, well, anything else that can be breaded and put into a vat of 350 degree vegetable oil. If the restaurant isn’t a seafood-specific venue, then it is probably one of the standard chain restaurants that seem to inhabit every town in America. And this is exactly why finding a place such as Saffron Indian Bistro is so refreshing.

"Some" of the great food at Saffron Indian Bistro.

Saffron is not a chain, though it is surrounded by the likes of Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (all very nice, in their own way.) As far as I can tell, this is the only Saffron.  Located in the edging-towards-upscale Virginia Beach TownCenter area, Saffron is on the fringe of the development. You won’t see it unless you look for it. Maybe that’s a good thing?

The decor is modern Indian, with vibrant colors and has well thought-out table placement, meaning it is not too crowded. I don’t mind neighbors while eating, but when I have to help pass a bread basket to another table, I think we have gone a bit too far. Saffron does not have this problem.

The food, now this is where the excitement comes in. Big flavor and big quantity. When we ordered our appetizer and entrees, we were given several options as to how spicy we wanted our food. One wanted mild, I opted for medium spicy while another asked for “hot.” When he picked what we thought was the spiciest level, the server then asked if he wanted “hot spicy or Indian hot spicy?” No one can decline the double dog dare, and this was clearly an unspoken one. “Indian hot spicy, please,” it was.

The food arrived, very well presented. We were also given several small bowls of curry sauce to use at our leisure. To sum up: everyone loved the food. The spice levels were perfect for the individual tastes and there was enough to share, for those adventurous enough. We even went home with food in to-go boxes.

While others have said service was less than desired, our service was great. Not too intrusive, yet it seems water glasses were never left half full. We arrived earlier than the second half of our foursome and while we were served our drinks and the appetizer, we never felt rushed or guilty about only having half the party there. It was a very pleasant experience. Cost was reasonable for the experience. The tab for two, including appetizer, two entrees and non-alcoholic beverages was about $60.

What did we get? We started with the assorted veg bites. (Remember, one of us is a vegetarian.) This appetizer came with veg samosa, aloo tikki, paneer pakora and veg pakora. Please, please, please don’t ask me to explain what all is in these delicacies. Suffice to say, they are vegetarian compliant and they all taste great.

I then had the seekh kebabs – marinated lamb meat, minced then spiced and formed into rolls, skewered then ultimately cooked in a Tandoor oven. The kebabs were served on top of fresh vegetables, all sizzling on a searing hot skillet. “Be careful, sir. The plate is hot.” Like the sound and steam didn’t clue me in? Taste? Awesome.

My wife ordered the Matar Paneer, a dish with paneer (an Indian cheese that is made in the restaurant; the closest American equivalent have might be “Farmer’s Cheese”) green peas, curry sauce and spices. It also came with a large bowl of saffron infused rice. She tends to order this dish whenever we try Indian food and I must say – she loved it. I can’t imagine a better endorsement.

Our dining partners ordered the Tandoori Chicken and the Chicken Tikka. In both cases, the chicken had been marinated overnight, then cooked Tandoori-style. The Tikka had actually been marinated in a sauce of yogurt, garlic, ginger and Garam masala. Now “what” is Garam masala? I’m glad you asked. This is a spice blend, prevalent throughout India apparently, where the ingredients and ratios tend to vary by chef. Those of you who make your own chili or barbecue sauce will understand. So we just don’t know. But it was delicious!

Of course, we could not eat Indian cuisine with out a healthy serving of garlic naan, a flatbread grilled in the Tandoor. I could eat this as the entire meal. (Sorry Dr. Adkins, I’ll start my low carb diet again…tomorrow!)

We were too full to enjoy a dessert, though we were offered.  Some of us did have a cool beverage to end the evening: a mango-yogurt shake called Mango Lassi. I looked around the dining room and saw many tables had made the same choice. A perfect way to recover from the spice and full flavor of the wonderful meal.

So next time you fly in from Mumbai, try Saffron Indian Bistro, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 am to 2:30 pm. Dinner begins at 5:30 pm. On Saturday and Sunday, the Bistro is open from noon through 10 PM (Saturday) and 11 pm (Sunday.)

Check out the website for more information. And take a chance! Go! Eat! Enjoy!

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