Azul 17 (9400 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia, 410-309-9717) isn't Howard County's only Mexican restaurant, but it's certainly the one with the coolest vibe.
The restaurant, which had its grand opening a couple of weeks ago, is as much a tequila lounge as eating place, with 17 signature margaritas (at what point do they stop being "signature," I wonder) and 17 signature cocktails. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Azul has a DJ playing international music.
The decor is contemporary, with white leather booths, murals on the walls, and red and yellow glass light fixtures. The lounge is spectacular, says general manager Amber Drenner. The bar changes colors with neon lights. There are more than 100 tequila bottles behind it and flat screen TVs. The walls are covered in small, iridescent blue tiles.
Azul's food is traditional Mexican, made contemporary by the latest culinary techniques. The executive chef is Damian Portuguez from Mexico City. He prepares everything in house. Small plates, moles and guacamole assembled at tableside are specialties.
"The food's not from a particular region," says Drenner, "but it is authentic Mexican - not Tex-Mex or New Mexican." Owners Julio and Lily Soto were originally from Mexico, but have lived in Columbia for the past 15 years or so.
Azul 17 is open for lunch Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., for dinner Sunday through Wednesday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday until 10 p.m. Sunday brunch is planned sometime in the next couple of months.
If you're wondering about the name, 17 is Julio Soto's lucky number, and "azul" means blue as in blue agave, the base ingredient of tequila.
TOP CHEF MOVES ON : It may be my imagination, but chefs seem to be on the move more these days. Jesse Sandlin, best known for her stint on Bravo's "Top Chef," is leaving Abacrombie Fine Food in Mount Vernon, where she's cooked with distinction for the past couple of years.
"My departure is strictly for personal reasons," she said on my blog, Dining@Large (baltimoresun.com/diningatlarge). "A recent death of someone very close to me has made me feel the need for some time off to decompress and reboot my systems."
Jerry Pellegrino, chef/owner of Corks in Federal Hill, who took over Abacrombie and brought in Sandlin when the former owners left, will be running the kitchen, probably until the end of the year. Sandlin will be in Australia for the month of November but plans to return to Baltimore.
HAPPY RETURNS: Meanwhile former chef Ben Troast has returned to Regi's American Bistro in Federal Hill. Troast, who had been at Regi's for four years, spent a year as a food service representative. The lure of the kitchen, though, was too much for him.
Regi's owner, Alan Morstein, said, "Having Ben back fits our modus operandi to a T by using farmer's market produce, local beef and bison as well as seasonal fish specialties. Our new dinner specials with the emphasis on fall cuisine have been very well received by our guests."
Troast worked at Sedona Restaurant in Bethany Beach, Del., before coming to Baltimore.
HELP WANTED: Chris Paternotte, who made a name for himself at the now-closed Vin in Towson, has left Taverna Corvino in Federal Hill where he was executive chef.
"[I'm] not sure what I am up to next," Paternotte told me. "Will have to give it a lot of thought!"
I talked to Jim Roberts, the general manager at Corvino and asked him what will happen now with the wine bar and small plates restaurant.
"We're maintaining status quo until we can find a face," he said frankly, by which he meant another name chef.
GOODBYE, AMORE : As part of my new feature, The Closing of the Week (OK, not as much of a joke as I wish it were), That's Amore in Columbia has closed. I understand it was without notice and after 17 years.
I called the sister restaurant in Rockville and was told the closing is permanent.
The Deal of the Week
Where: Oregon Grille bar, 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley
The Deal: Complimentary international cheese board (Tuesdays), half-price appetizers (Wednesdays), complimentary oysters on the half shell (Thursdays) and complimentary sushi (Fridays)
When: 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.