One of the first things the new owners of Blue Agave did when they took over was to prop open the front doors. Now when you walk by the Light Street entrance of this Federal Hill restaurant, it looks like a place that's ready for company. Inside, they enlarged the bar area and made some subtle but effective cosmetic changes to the cantina-style dining room.
Then they got busy on social media, reassuring Blue Agave's old customers and encouraging new visitors. The new Blue Agave, they said, would keep the classics but introduce something new — fun. The new owners are led by Brian Acquavella, who spent 10 years at the popular Macky's in Ocean City, where the atmosphere, its website says, is "upbeat and laid back."
Founded by Michael Marks in 2000, Blue Agave was Baltimore's first Mexican restaurant to consider Mexican food as a serious cuisine with regional variations. Baltimore diners were suddenly trusted with tomatillos and achiote, jicama and Chilean sea bass.
Marks sold the restaurant in 2006 to owners who strove to stay on mission while introducing some lighter fare. Since then, good Mexican fare has become more accessible in Baltimore, and Blue Agave eventually began to matter less.
The new team moved in in mid-May, and already Blue Agave is getting the crowds back. Customers are packing the bar and filling up the two-level dining room. The staff we saw were engaged and enthusiastic, and Blue Agave is also well-staffed, so your table is kept clean and water glasses are continually refilled. Complimentary salsa trio and chips are brought to the table just after the drink order. The last time I visited Blue Agave, we had to place our order before this happened. You can't fake hospitality, so consider that the hard part has been taken care of.
Now, the gang can take some time to examine the menu, which is a somewhat awkward mix of specialties like plantain-encrusted sea bass and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, and new offerings like fajitas and tacos.
Your gut tells you that Blue Agave should focus on one thing or the other — but what? There's no telling which dishes will satisfy, which will disappoint. The first two appetizers were worlds apart. Chile-rubbed scallops are pan-seared with finesse, served smoking hot in a brightly arousing tequila lime butter. Sweet, spicy and tender, they don't need the accompaniment of fruity salsa, listed on the menu as pineapple but tasting of mango. But the Blue Agave market ceviche was no good at all — more like a deli-case salad, with mushy, overcooked fish and seafood, and zip-less onions, chiles and tomatoes.
There are good parts to the Agave Sampler, but it could be arranged with more clarity, so that you know which mole or sauce is meant for which savory snack. We especially liked the warm flavors and firm texture of a poblano and cheese tamale. Also good were a simple fried jalapeno pepper and a flaky and firm empanada filled with shredded pork, raisins and almonds. Blue-corn chicken flautas come off bland, though.
The entrees based on simple executions of meats work best. There's nothing magical about the chipotle pollo skewers, but the chicken was tender and juicy, with just enough lime in the marinade to keep the chipotle from tasting muddy. The accompanying black beans were overcooked, though, and the red chile rice was watery. We also liked the fajitas with carne asada because the skirt steak, seasoned well and grilled expertly, was so tender and flavorful.
The kitchen could cool it with the mango, which makes whatever it's in taste cloying and down-market. Mango all but obliterated the serrano chiles in the tropical-fruit salsa served on a chile-rubbed salmon fillet, a Blue Agave specialty that no longer feels special.
The bar has a bit of a sweet tooth, too. The sangria is too fruity, and the margarita selection reads like the listing at a snowball stand.
But the unexpected disappointment was the tacos, which so many places have the hang of now. The tacos we ordered — one each of pulled chicken, shredded pork and fried avocado — were stuffed with so much shredded cheese and chopped vegetables that we couldn't tell one from the other, even after tasting them. Tacos are something Blue Agave needs to get right.
For dessert, Blue Agave is still serving its ancho-chili bread pudding, which sounded too heavy for a hot summer night. We went instead for a huge goblet of ice cream and churros.
When they took over, the new owners announced that the menu was going to be a work in progress. They need to progress further. Positive energy, consistently good service and promotions like taco and burrito nights and weekly wine specials are keeping customers happy at Blue Agave now, and a more focused and consistent menu will make sure they stay that way.
Blue Agave Restaurante y Tequileria
Where: 1032 Light St., Federal Hill
Contact: 410-576-3938, http://www.blueagaverestaurant.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $6.49-$14.99 ; Entrees, $12.99-$24.99
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