Azu Restaurant and Tapas Bar
457 E. Ojai Ave.

For years I’ve made the mistake of avoiding Azu because of a tendency to write off tapas as too much money for too little food. A friend told me that I was missing out — that there are entrees, a reasonable lunch menu, and that if you’re on a modest budget you can still enjoy yourself and leave Azu feeling nourished and buzzed.

From the street, the long, dark wooden bar suggests a moody interior, but you find just the opposite once inside: the bar is just a big presence that runs through an airy front room enlivened with large paintings full of movement. The modern and sexy atmosphere plays off historical elements like cast-iron hardware and exposed brick, and is bolstered by more art and abundant lighting as the restaurant extends toward a far back patio.

First things first: Before you get involved in the food menu, you should browse the cocktail menu. The beer list is primarily local, and there’s a broad range of wines from California and the Mediterranean (including more than 20 by the glass). But cocktails are the reputed highlight here. Mixed into many spins on classics, you’ll find high-end liqueurs and bitters, fresh juices, house-made simple syrups, and occasionally pickled vegetables.

My eyes darted around the drinks list like a high-velocity pinball, bouncing off preferences and sometimes price. Among gin cocktails, the Green Lady has loads of botanical appeal, but the Spanish 75 seemed to be a good compromise, with the venerable mix of St. Germain elderflower liqueur and dry gin (Greenall’s Bloom) brightened with lemon and sparkling cava wine. Lingering shards of ice and well-restrained liqueur signaled a skillful hand.

Showing up for the charitably-timed happy hour — every day from 5:30 to 7 — opens up a range of tapas options well-suited for starting out. A great one is steamed mussels, a set of four seated in a full-bodied garlic and white wine broth, which is best appreciated by sopping it up with the spongy and yeasty house bread (as our server suggested). Whole sautéed prawns (known here as gambas) carry similar flavors without the broth.

Along with seafood, the kitchen at Azu has a knack for making the most of a humble potato. Patatas fritas might be the best fries you’ve ever tried; crisp, angular wedges heavily dusted with coarse salt and pepper become perfect after a dip into thick, garlicky aioli. The spherical little croquettes are seriously satisfying too; these shredded potato fritters are stuffed with Serrano ham and manchego cheese, deep fried, then arranged on a pool of smoky chipotle aioli.

With a cocktail and a couple of happy-hour tapas down, you feel pretty good. An entree might beckon, but another tapas order per person will also work. My mom insists that stuffed dates are amazing here. Organic medjool dates are filled with chorizo, wrapped in bacon and fried, so those probably would have been amazing. But, stupidly, I didn’t listen to mom.

We ended up going for lamb kabobs, because Moroccan spiced lamb is pretty unbeatable when there’s some chill in the air. The ground meat was medium rare and juicy, but too light of a hand on the spices left the pleasantly thick and cooling house-made tzatziki with too little to stand up against.

The seafood paella was impossible to resist, despite knowing fully the risks inherent in ordering something you cook at home. There are just so few local restaurants preparing it. The shellfish was fresh and perfectly cooked — think soft, creamy bay scallops — and the Spanish sausage had the boldness of smoked paprika and fat to provide a surf and turf feel.

But this paella fell short on the second half of the dish: the rice had no socarrat, the crisp little panes of caramelized grain from the bottom of the pan that bear testament to a lovingly made paella. Instead of fluffy yet crusty, it was creamy like risotto. Still a tasty dish, with flavors that work fantastically well with a glass of the house garnacha, but veering from tradition worked against it.

The service was irreproachable. I’d heard otherwise, and a neighboring table remarked that their chocolate soufflé was taking long even by soufflé standards, but our experience was entirely positive. We were greeted immediately upon walking in, and throughout the dinner the service was team-oriented and attentive without being too present. Our server in particular was one any server could take notes from.

If you’re also a reluctant tapas eater, it might surprise you to feel satisfied eating less than you’d have guessed — good evidence that spending more time eating your meal is a healthy practice. It’s helpful that the ample seating here allows you to enjoy yourself, and finish with some creamy house-made gelato, without feeling any pressure to leave.