Fine Food in Freeport
The Azure Cafe's eclectic menu satisfies shoppers - and locals - all year long.
- By: Debra Spark
Photo courtesy of N. Kate Werner/ Azure Cafe
Within twelve months of opening a restaurant just two doors north of Freeport's L.L. Bean, Jonas Werner got a call from his wife and business partner, Kate, saying that they had to consider filing for bankruptcy. Their dream project - one that had started with Werner's boyhood experiments with cans of Campbell's soup - had lost a hundred thousand dollars and was going under.
But Werner resisted. "The difference between restaurants that fail and those that succeed are the ones that fail close," he says. Undeterred, he and his wife scrapped their original restaurant plans and started over with a new concept. This time, without the help of consultants, the couple went back to what they loved, Werner says: "Fine food in a casual atmosphere. We set out to do that." The challenge would be to run a year-round business that flourished whether there were five hundred diners, as there might be on a good summer's day, or sixty, as there might be in the middle of winter.
The result is Azure Caf`, a six-year-old eatery that describes itself as "a taste of Italy on the coast of Maine." In fact, given the menu, the restaurant might be said to have three identities: one as a Maine lobster house, serving award-winning clam chowder and lobster rolls; another as a classic Italian restaurant, serving lasagna Bolognese, linguine with clam sauce, and chicken Marsala; and still another as a more upscale restaurant with imaginative dishes like roasted pork tenderloin in a Chianti and black currant reduction sauce.
As chef Chris Bassett explains, "We had to come up with comfort foods, as well as appealing to people looking for something new and exciting. A lot of chefs feel like they have to do something no one's ever done before. You don't have to do that to succeed."
The "something" that Azure does - thanks to Bassett's training at Vermont's New England Culinary Institute and his experience at Scarborough's Black Point Inn and Portland's Back Bay Grill, among other places - allows diners to come in for a quick grilled flatbread sandwich, a light salad (like the nicely sweet and crunchy insalate mescolare with greens, caramelized pistachios, and Gorgonzola with a roasted apple balsamic vinaigrette) or a more substantial dinner. In addition to the respectable wine list, there are imaginative drinks, like the popular wild Maine blueberry margarita and the Azuretini, consisting of Ciroc vodka, white cranberry juice, and a frozen grape, an elegant improvement on the often overly sweet Cosmopolitan. Drinks can be enjoyed with meals or in the downstairs bar. Upstairs, there's an airy, though minimally decorated, dining room. On a recent night, every table was occupied. A shopper was eating a lobster dinner while talking on her cell phone about her day's purchases, a group of local retirees were wondering if they should try the risotto of the day or stick to one of their old favorites, and a young woman was telling her table about her recent experiences in the army.
"I always thought," Werner admits, "that there was a tourist menu and a local menu. But the food we thought was for tourists is for locals. I'm amazed at the number of people who come here year-round and eat fish and chips."
Werner feels that the success of Azure Caf`'s dishes - whether simple or more complex - is Bassett's palate. The fried calamari is appealingly light, finished with a bit of Parmesan, lemon juice, parsley, and rice wine vinegar - just the right tastes to offset the crisp breading. The Sicilian-style cioppino with super fresh mussels, haddock, lobster, and shrimp is one of the menu's real standouts, the standard dish rendered more complex by the sauce's intriguing layers of flavors: tomatoes, roasted red peppers, roasted garlic, clam juice, and red and white wines. Sometimes Bassett gives a "down home" twist to upscale ingredients, turning his filet mignon into a stylish steak-and-cheese sandwich, one that includes wild Maine mushrooms and black truffle duxelles, fried shallots, and Gorgonzola cheese.
Come winter, all this has to be enjoyed indoors. In the summer, there is an outdoor (dog-friendly) patio. And a new menu. Indeed, the menu changes every three months to suit the seasons and local availability. Werner purchases lobsters from Harpswell and meat from Freeport's Wolfe's Neck Farm and uses mostly natural and organic ingredients. A local farmer even heats his greenhouse with the restaurant's discarded oil.
"It's like family here," Werner says, speaking of his appealingly friendly, low-key staff, and of Freeport itself. "Someone asks for something," he adds, referring to local requests for food for the needy, "we do it. To cook for a family who is going through a difficult time and deliver it? That's not hard for us to do." He looks around his downstairs dining room, where waiters are neatening up after lunch. "After all, we're already here cooking."
Azure Cafe` is located at 123 Main Street in Freeport. Open daily. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Weekend light fare from 3 - 4 p.m. Dinner from 5 - 8:30 p.m. on weeknights, till 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Lunch $8-$12. Dinner entrees $12.50-$32. Full bar. Wheelchair accessible. 207-865-1237. www.azurecafe.com
- By: Debra Spark