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Masa Azul ‘Frexican’ fare needs work to measure up to the cocktails

Cornbread stuffed quail MasAzul 2901 W. Diversey.  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Cornbread stuffed quail at Masa Azul, 2901 W. Diversey. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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MASA AZUL ★½

2901 W. Diversey;
(773) 687-0300;
masaazul.com

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers, soups and salads, $4-$15; entrees, $16-$21; desserts, $4-$7.

Try: Cornbread-stuffed quail, goat cheese fundido, mesquite duck breast, El Jardin cocktail, peanut butter-chocolate pot du creme.

In a bite: A really good Latin-inspired bar/restaurant serving incredible, complex, balanced cocktails from a deep, well-curated list of tequilas. While the Mexican/Southwestern food with a French twist is inconsistent, inspired plates like cornbread-stuffed quail, goat cheese fundido and pineapple-tequila chutney slathered mesquite duck breast make this a decent pre-club dinner and drink spot. Table service is lacking, but bar-service is inspired. Agave spirit-geeks and cocktail aficionados will find this a fine clubhouse for quaffing.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good;
Zero stars: Poor

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:03AM



‘You don’t want a kiss good night,” Jason Lerner, partner in the new Logan Square restaurant Masa Azul insists to my mother-in-law. If anyone in the restaurant is eavesdropping, they’re probably horrified, wondering if the slightly tipsy lady sitting in the corner next to me is mad, trying to score a smooch from a dude half her age.

But my mother-in-law is no raging cougar. Rather, she’s inspired to close the meal with a boozy dessert cocktail cheekily named “A Kiss Goodnight.” But Lerner stopped serving it because one of the liquors used to make it had changed since he tested the drink.

Lerner’s denial is a courageous risk, but ultimately a protection of the customer, a signal that Masa Azul isn’t just a money grab.

And that’s what you’d expect, for Masa Azul is not just a restaurant, but an earnest pipe dream of Lerner, his wife, Valerie, and their chef, Alvaro Chavez, born after a hard day’s night at their old restaurant jobs. Unfortunately, their dream has only partly been realized.

In a part of town where “joints” rule, Masa Azul is a relative palace filled with backlit glass tile, exposed brick and glossy blue wooden chairs. There’s also a collection of seductively scrimmed chandeliers that cast a gauzy glow across the deep walnut dining tables.

But under that hazy spotlight, Lerner’s chef is wilting. The sophomoric mistake of taking too many shots of Jose Cuervo can’t be replicated at Masa Azul because there is no Cuervo. Lerner has banished it in favor of top-shelf tequila. And yet, his chef serves up limp, warm, tasteless baby carrots, the Cuervo of vegetables, with many courses. Chavez also serves farm-raised trout instead of local or wild caught varieties. I’d tell you what the fish tasted like, but the server shrugged his shoulders and shook his head when I attempted to order it.

So I get the mesquite duck breast with pineapple-tequila chutney instead. The fan of rosy tender, medium-rare, spicy flesh kissed with smoke has a luscious richness cut by the acidity of the pineapple. It’s Chavez’s finest accomplishment. Unfortunately, a side of bland, under-salted green beans blanched to a U.S. Cellular Field-grass shade undoes the plate.

The cocktail program at Masa Azul offers some redemption. Mixologist Jenny Kessler, and Lerner, who evangelizes agave spirits with the verve of a Trekkie recounting Klingon history, have launched one of the best drink programs in town. Kessler’s use of scent conjures Alinea’s experiments with burning oak leaves and pillows of lavender air. In her “El Jardin” cocktail, a rim-level bouquet of thyme tempers the exotic floral notes of passion fruit, blood orange and pomegranate juice and fuses with the slight earthiness of the blanco tequila.

Really, all things cocktail related are perfect until the waitress serves the drink I order to my friend and then dumps two dollars’ worth of it on the table while making the correction. I hope she brings a new drink, but she just giggles at her clumsiness.

Were this the exception, the service would be fine, but on another visit, my server, sporting a Justin Bieber-esque flop of hair, seems stoked about everything except serving well. He ignores my table for 10 minutes and forgets the smoky corn chowder I ordered. When I remind him, he asks, “Do you still want it”? I thought I did, but then I regret a first slurp that lacks any seasonal sweet corn flavor and wish for a dose of lime to brighten things up.

Unfortunately, the food and service continue to match after that.

Chavez is also a fan of the ring mold, a tired ’80s staple he uses to bunch a bitter astringent ceviche of gulf shrimp and bay scallops into a perfect circle. The ceviche, which contains a parsimonious bit of mango, needs more sweetness to balance out the mouth-puckering tequila lime cure.

Chavez describes his food as Southwestern, but it feels “Frexican,” a blend of regional Mexican flavors and French technique, something that works well when plump, juicy shrimp and hunks of spicy chorizo swim in a puff pastry pool filled with lime beurre blanc.

Cornbread-stuffed quail glistens with a sweet/spicy tongue-smiting and delighting honey-habanero glaze. But the coffee-peppered beef medallions are so overtly spiced, you cough and sputter on the crust like you’ve been Maced. The limp duck tamale featuring heavy dough and dry meat has no quack. Goat cheese fundido, a crib from Food Network star chef Bobby Flay, featuring roasted pepper and chorizon, is rich and comforting but also more of a gratin than a gooey-satisfying fondue.

The silky peanut butter-chocolate pot de creme is a successful upscale riff on a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. The tres leches cake is cold and coarse. The crumb on this cake is hogging all the sweet milk and feels, like the rest of the restaurant, not so much like a dreamy lover’s good night kiss, but more of a dispassionate peck from a polite European friend.

Michael Nagrant is a local free-lance writer. E-mail diningout@suntimes.com with questions and comments.



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