Brazilian, Latin American, Salvadoran, South American
$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Azucar's Sophisticated Flavors

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

When I was a kid, my father's maiden aunt (as such ladies were then known, regardless of actual kinship or experience) often brought him a jar of pickled silvery fish laced with ribbons of white onion. The other night, halfway into a huge dish of flounder ceviche at Azucar, I suddenly knew exactly what it was: South American pescado, Southern American pareve (kosher fish). Who knew?

Another night's dish of lengua a la Portugesa , wine-braised beef tongue, was easily the best version I've tasted (including the aunt's). Patiently simmered, amazingly tender and just a little viscous from its tendons' dissolving, it could inspire an entire scene of a Woody Allen movie.

Azucar, an ambitious but unpushy Mexican and Latin American restaurant in the space that was the erratic Marrakesh de Paris in Silver Spring, makes clear at first glance that it is more than a cute-look taqueria (though there is a complete list of tacos, fajitas, burritos and the like). The mostly white bistro-ish decor and banquettes have been stripped out in favor of a spare gallery style, with walls of solid eggplant and persimmon broken by slightly offbeat black-and-white photos.

The menu showcases the cosmopolitan Creole style that evolved from the various European regimes and traders in the New World -- Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian -- and even reclaims from fast-food disgrace some homier indulgences. A dish of queso fundido , for instance, was rich with crunchy bits of skirt steak and bare of the usual layer of cheese-melt oil and served with hot flour tortillas rather than packaged chips. (As it happens, the chips, brought with roasted salsa, are notably thin and tasty.)

Among other appetizers -- the ceviche, incidentally, comes either in an all-fish version or a mixed shellfish misto -- the nachos al carbon , especially with marinated flank steak, would pass as a midsize meal. One night's special of crab-stuffed quesadillas was pretty good, although the shellfish was a bit too delicately applied to make much of an impression under the combined force of flour tortilla, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, etc. -- as much a consideration when ordering, perhaps, as when assembling.

The zarzuela Andaluza , a rich, slightly tomato-creamy shellfish stew, had an intensity of flavor that many containing shortcut stocks lack; it's a sort of textural cross between the lighter mariscada , seafood soup, and the perfectly assembled paella. (The paella's sole flaw was a slight excess of salt, which probably resulted from accumulated shellfish juices.)

One of the showier offerings was a whole 1 1/2 -pound lobster, split down the center, stuffed with sauteed shrimp, mushrooms and scallops and topped with a seafood cream -- something like an elaborate Norfolk. Thanks to the parts being prepared separately, each was correctly done, and the sauce itself was very nice. But the whole dish is difficult to eat without spraying sauce or shells in all directions. Having the kitchen cut the tail into smaller pieces rather than just dividing the shell longways and then covering the sharp edges with the sauce, or even removing the meat and presenting it with the claws alongside, would be easier. (One of the owners admitted to sometimes taking the lobster home and eating it there, though he encouraged the customer to relax and have at it.) For more restrained diners, fresh trout comes topped in a similar manner.

For meat lovers, beef is available in a half-dozen flavors, from Milanese (lightly breaded and pan-fried) to Peruvian (classic lomo saltado , tenderloin tips in sweet peppers and tomatoes); from Argentine (a mixed grill of chicken, steak, pork chops, chorizo and short ribs) to that Iberian tongue; and from Tex-Mex mesquite-grilled to all-American surf and turf. Pork lovers have marinated chops, Cuban masitas de puerco , tangy with Seville oranges and criollo sauce, barbecued ribs and so on.

The one-person alternative to the Argentine parrillada , which is served for two, is a mixed brochette of marinated steak, chicken breast and shrimp with vegetables, which although advertised for one is still plenty for two, and which comes on a long, oval plate with rice down the center and an equally generous curve of avocado salad paralleling the brochette.

The menu is so extensive it makes you wonder how the kitchen stands up to a real rush, since the cooking has been pretty attentive but not exactly fast. The sides of rice, black beans and plantains are prepared constantly so they stay fresh, not congealing; the greens and various salads seem tossed to order as well.

Meanwhile, I have my eye on the roast duck with red wine and olives. I'm pretty sure my aunt didn't make that one.