Last weekend was the first time I'd ever eaten my lunch off a flaming piece of wood.
I worried about walking out of Blue Agave smelling like a campfire.
Instead, I walked out thinking that the flaming fajita is the best example of what I found at the new restaurant: traditional food with a modern twist and artful presentation.
When it works, it works great. In my two recent visits to the five-month-old establishment, it didn't always work.
Situated just off West Dodge Road between Charleston's, Biaggi's and Mahogany Prime Steakhouse, Blue Agave is the city's latest answer to upscale Mexican. It's not a chain.
Chef and business partner Jared Clarke, who worked at Blue Sushi Sake Grill after returning to Omaha from Chicago, is behind the vast menu, which includes close to 30 entrees.
The interior of the restaurant, formerly Ted's Nebraska Grill, has been transformed. The only holdover is the large, wooden booths that divide the dining room into halves, one devoted to a sleek bar area and an open kitchen.
A local artist created murals along the ceiling of undulating waves in blue and white. Architectural light fixtures that emulate the shape of the agave plant dot the ceiling. Those, along with blue lights around the bar area, give the restaurant a sort of ethereal glow. The booths are covered in shiny silver upholstery.
The decor, like the food we tried, is a mix of traditional and modern.
We started both meals with the restaurant's complimentary medium-sized bowl of chips and accompanying salsa. Both are pretty standard: not bad, but not astounding. The salsa on our first visit was watery on the edges, but on our second, it was much thicker. It didn't have much heat, and the flavor is mostly of cilantro.
We appreciated the smaller bowl of chips — it helped us save room for the main courses.
Blue Agave serves those fajitas in the most creative way I've seen. A smoldering piece of blackened wood is the base for the Fajitas a la Plancha Mesquite, which come with carne asada (seasoned skirt steak), puerco al pastor (marinated pork loin), pollo en adobado (roasted chicken and peppers) or camarones (shrimp).
In an interview later, Clarke said the dish is easy to prepare but takes a few steps. The mesquite planks used for serving are soaked in water for about a half-hour and preheated overnight. Clarke cooks the fajita filling on a mesquite grill, and just before it's finished, throws a plank into the fire and finishes cooking the filling on the 500-degree slab of smoking wood.
The shrimp fajitas clearly earn points for style. Though each element that comes with the fajita platter would be one-note alone, together, they sing. My platter included eight fat shrimp with loads of smoky mesquite flavor. Three house-made corn tortillas came hot, wrapped in a cloth napkin, along with a pyramid-shaped pile of rice and bowls of beans, salsa and authentic Mexican cheese called queso fresco. Sweet caramelized onions and roasted poblano peppers are mixed in with the shrimp. I could have used a fourth tortilla to scoop it all up.
The tacos de pescado, or fish tacos, were another hit. Three small sized tacos in soft, house-made corn tortillas come on a large plate and are wrapped together in a thick green banana leaf stabbed through with a skewer and topped with a wedge of lime.
Clarke said the banana leaf is a nod to traditional Mayan culture, but the presentation is meant to give the dish a more contemporary "coastal Mexican" feel.
Clarke said he hasn't spent a lot of time in Mexico, but when he was a chef in Chicago he worked with Mexican cooks and chefs and learned traditional techniques from them, often eating with them at their homes. His menu at Blue Agave includes cuisine from all over Mexico, but he said it focuses mostly on the Gulf side. Central and Northern Mexican cuisines make cameo appearances.
The fish tacos didn't disappoint. A blend of tender snapper and firm shrimp contrasted nicely with crunchy slaw made mostly with jicama, a white vegetable with a nutty taste and a texture similar to a crisp water chestnut. The sweet cilantro vinaigrette on the bottom of the taco added moisture and lots of flavor. Many of the entrees come with a side of rice, dotted with vegetables and molded into the shape of a pyramid, and charros, sausage-studded beans.
A few other sides are available, including vegetarian black beans, grilled potatoes, cooked vegetables and escabeche — pickled onions, carrots and jalapeno peppers sliced in half lengthwise, with seeds and ribs intact and exposed.
I didn't know what to expect from the escabeche, but I didn't like what I got: a small bowl of hard, vinegary vegetables cut into too-big-to-eat chunks. I sampled one quartered onion and one carrot. I couldn't bring myself to eat a seed-laden jalapeno. Clarke said the traditional side dish can be used inside tacos or burritos to add spice. The dish is seasoned with garlic and Mexican oregano.
"A lot of people really enjoy it because it is very vinegary," he said.
I wish my server would have explained to me how the pickled veggies could have been eaten or elaborated on what I was ordering. I also wish a server would have explained to us the meaning of the tiny agave plant symbol next to a number of items on the menu. (They're chef's recommendations.)
Service, otherwise, was good. The wait staff made suggestions on menu items when we asked, refilled our beverages promptly and checked back numerous times.
My dining partner tried the torta de barbacoa, Clarke's twist on traditional Mexican street food. A torta is a Mexican sandwich on a large, crusty bun. They can be hot or cold, though they're usually hot. Fillings can include any variety of meats as well as seafood, chicken and cheese.
The Blue Agave version of a torta took up most of the plate. The bun, crusty outside and chewy inside, held a pile of ancho barbecued pulled beef, cilantro cream sauce, sliced radish and avocado, cheese and greens.
He expected the sandwich to explode with flavors, and while the meat was juicy and tender, he said he expected more Mexican flavor, such as barbecue sauce, cumin spice or chile peppers.
The same went for the appetizer we tried.
Cazuelas is a traditional Mexican baked dish, and our waitress recommended the smoked black bean version (Blue Agave also serves the dish with a base of wild mushrooms or chorizo sausage).
What we got was a casserole dish of bland black beans topped with a thick layer of hot cheese. Chips came with it. After my first bite, I sprinkled salt on the dish. After my second, I dissected it a bit, looking for the salsa and smoked green chile that were supposed to be there. I couldn't see or taste them. After a third bite, when the cheese topping had started to cool and solidify, I quit. Anything covered in hot melted cheese usually has a place in my heart, but in this case, the cazuelas felt more like empty calories than a treat.
Clarke said he wasn't sure what happened to the dish we had, and surmised that it may have been incorrectly prepared. Smoked peppers are supposed to be scattered throughout the partially mashed beans.
Other entrees we tried were good.
The Blue Agave Chopped is the restaurant's signature salad. Served in a large, tilted bowl, it's more than enough for one. Mixed greens serve as the base alongside mix-ins of grilled chipotle chicken, roasted corn, tomatoes, radish, green onion, bacon, two types of cheese and crisp tortilla strips. The whole thing is swirled together with a tart citrus dressing. One of my two dining partners this day said his salad also had chunks of avocado, though they're not listed on the menu. He welcomed the addition.
The burrito de carne was another hit. The huge burrito is served cut in half, and the inside is prettily layered with either beef barbacoa (spicy barbecued beef) or pork carnita (spiced pork), house-made beans, salsa fresca, chimichurri sauce (a garlicky Argentinian sauce usually spooned over meat) and cheese. My second dining partner chose the pork, and described the burrito as having "a ton of fresh flavors."
The chimichurri sauce, flavored with seasonal basil, was a nice foil to the spiced meat, which was salty and savory. The burrito seemed to have been pressed before serving, which made it easier to eat, though this dining partner only made it through half of the big entree.
Prices on Blue Agave's menu may surprise some diners. The shrimp fajita, for instance, is $18; and the two most expensive items on the menu come in above $25 each. For the most part, though, entrees linger around the $13 mark, and the amount of food served seems reasonable at that price point. You'd pay the same for less at the city's major fast-casual chain restaurants.
Blue Agave does stumble at moments. Flavors could be bolder. Servers could be more helpful. Mexican food at a higher price is, for some, still a tough sale. And word needs to get around that it's not part of a national chain.
With a few modifications, though, Blue Agave could land among the city's other neo-Mexican hot spots, such as Roja Mexican Grill and Cantina Laredo, because it has that whole atmosphere thing down. It's hip. The food presentation is often a work of art.
If the consistency and flavor of the food catches up with the look and feel of the restaurant, Blue Agave could become a west Omaha mainstay.