In the heart of Freeport Village, the Azure Cafe is an inviting dining establishment that serves thoughtfully prepared Italian-inspired cuisine.
The menu offers both classic dishes and more rarefied fare. Standard preparations like veal saltimbocca ($24), chicken Marsala ($19.25), zuppa de pesce ($22) and chicken carbonnara ($22.95) are listed on the menu as Italian classics. More evolved entrees include a seafood risotto ($32) with local lobster, white fish and calamari in a basil-scented cream sauce; Maine white fish puttanesca ($21) with local pollock, capers and olives over linguini, and skewers of filet mignon ($27) in a roasted-garlic balsamic glaze served over quinoa, among some of the choices.
The restaurant has been at the same location for 11 years, and executive chef Christopher Bassett has been in charge of the kitchen for over nine years. Even our very accommodating waitress has been serving patrons for nearly a decade here.
The coolly snug space is decorous without being pretentious. You enter into a cozy bar area with a few tables and bar chairs. Off this is the main dining room that is as neat as a pin, with a casually modern décor.
Our waitress showed us to a comfortable table by the window. Once seated we were, however, a bit put off by her opening monologue about the restaurant’s special wine offering that evening. Her overly dramatic presentation regarding a Shiraz from Australia sounded rehearsed and memorized. We chose to begin instead with cocktails ($6.95 to $9) and repaired to the restaurant’s otherwise excellent wine list later in our meal.
The distinctive list has won the Wine Spectator Award for Excellence eight years running. On it are many choices by the glass and an impressive selection of premium bottlings, with a concentration on Italian, French and California wines. Examples include a 2003 Ch. Duhart-Milon Rothschild ($96), a classified growth from Pauillac and a 1999 Barolo “Vigna Lazzairascoo” ($130) from Piedmont. The rest of the list – California, Australian, Spanish and South American wines – is reasonably priced (mostly $18 to $35).
We began our meal by sharing three starters. The first was calamari azzimata ($10.25). This was fried local calamari dressed up (“azzimata”) with Parmesan, red onion and a sea-salt vinaigrette. It appealed to me because of the lightness of the coating and the tanginess of the vinaigrette. But my two guests thought the fried squid should have been crisper. One of my guests also remarked that there was so much diced red onion that he found it distracting and unnecessary. I disagreed; I thought the onion gave the dish its vitality of texture and taste.
The next starter was a duo of Maine seafood cakes ($13.95). These were coated in panko and sautéed to a golden brown. The luxurious filling was rich with local lobster, crab meat and sustainably harvested Gulf of Maine pollock. With it was a cunning sweet-sour relish (“agrodulce”) made with tomatoes and cucumbers and crowned with a black pepper-scented dollop of sour cream. It was one of the highlights of our meal.
By this time we were also presented with the complimentary house bread, which was served warm and lightly scented with garlic. The bread was so good we asked our waitress whether it was made in house. Its provenance turned out to be a baker in San Francisco, a curious choice since many artisanal breads are abundantly available locally.
The third of our appetizers was a Caesar salad ($9.50). This was the least successful of the three. The dressing had a slightly medicinal taste – too much lemon – and barely enough grated Parmesan, which would have married so well with the abundance of anchovies in the salad. One more element that was off-putting was the tiny bits of croutons that were the size of Jujubes.
To go with our entrees two of us ordered glasses of Malbec Santa Ana ($8.50) from Argentina. It was a highly perfumed, complex and enjoyable wine and showed how Argentine Malbecs can offer good wallops of flavor and style at a moderate price.
My entrée was a special of the evening – pork tenderloin ($24) seared in a black pepper sauce. It was served over smashed garlic potatoes and braised kale. The meat was very tender, but bland. It needed a sweet glaze or marinade to liven it up; the black pepper sauce didn’t do it.
One guest ordered the lasagna Bolognese ($18). The sauce was not typically slow-cooked with braised meats and sweet spices. Instead, it was prepared with a very tasty roasted-garlic marinara, ground beef and four cheeses, including a moist layer of ricotta between the pasta sheets. This was a fine rendition of classic dish.
My other guest opted for the chicken Parmesan ($18). The chicken had a delicious breading, perfectly sautéed until golden and crisp without being typically drenched in tomato sauce. Instead, there was a sheath of melted mozzarella over the chicken, which was placed over linguini judiciously bathed in a very rich-tasting marinara. My guest, a Parmesan maven of the Italian-American school, loved the dish, especially the pasta, which was carefully cooked al dente.
We ordered two desserts to share from a short list of sweets, some that were made in-house and others from outside purveyors. The crema caramella ($6) was prepared in the kitchen and was a beautifully made custard with a delicate texture; the caramel sauce hit the right sweet notes.
Our other choice was a vanilla cheesecake ($7), which was a disappointing leaden lump. We didn’t say anything to our waitress about it but noticed that she took it off the bill – kudos to her for being so intuitive.
It’s impressive when a restaurant does this unsolicited. But that gesture showed how the Azure Café strives to give its patrons a good dining experience.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: