Restaurants: Mexican waiver

Business over pleasure is a sad recipe for a restaurant, says Vivienne Heller
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The Independent Culture
Down Mexico Way opened its Azul Room in 1997, adding a further 120 covers to an already huge restaurant and nightclub. Geared towards larger groups, it's a popular venue for revellers, and played host on Saturday night to my dear friend's hen party.

The Azul Room is indeed blue, with cut-out bronzed pillars filtering a lattice-work of light onto the walls. More Gaudiesque than Mexican, it's an attractive touch, and the squashy chairs around large, well-spaced tables are conducive to happy chatting.

The pain is taken out of group ordering with a semi-set menu (a choice of three main courses) and a brusque waitress: "What about a jug of long- island iced tea, one of margherita, and one of sex-on-the-beach" - a rhetorical question that found easy prey among this group of alcohol-fuelled females.

Dinner kicked off with polenta: two deep-fried triangles drenched in chilli sauce in a valiant but revolting attempt at cross-culinary fertilisation. I swigged a passable caipirinha to obliterate the taste. Main courses were fractionally better. My chicken tortilla was an Ayers Rock mound of flour, cheese and decent meaty chunks. There was just room around the side to squeeze a spoonful of refried beans, but I couldn't bring myself to sample the jaundiced rice. Stabs at others' dishes revealed decent pieces of garden vegetables in a spinach burrito. But all in all, nul points for presentation.

Half-time distraction took the form of Stella and Edison, who gave us a cursory glimpse of their salsa prowess before spinning off to make room for Generation Game-style japes. Birthday girls and hen-night queens, fake veils signalling a mission to party, lined up expectantly, while men were forcibly dragged onto the dancefloor in a tragic display of reticent English manhood. The band shouted steps to two dubious moves, and the gaggle was off, shuffling and jumping to a rousing Latin tune.

It was a brisk, five-minute break in an evening characterised by very

un-Mexican efficiency. Everything from the menu to dining time was honed to ensure high turnover and low production costs in a display of organisation that left one feeling rather short-changed.

Our bride-to-be lurched back to the table in time for pudding: vanilla icecream sealed in white chocolate. It was fine, in a Bird's Eye kind of way, and was a sweetener for the bill: "pounds 34 each," murmured incredulous voices (pounds 3.25 for bottled water!). But before we had time to mourn the passing of largely undeserved wads of cash, we were unceremoniously evicted to make room for the next sitting. Yet, despite the lamentable fare, the excellent band had put a spring in our steps, and fired us with enthusiasm for the next instalment of chicks on the town...

Down Mexico Way, 25 Swallow St, London W1 (0171-437 9895) set menu pounds 17 a head