Azul at the Mandarin Oriental: Inconsistency scars a pricey but intriguing molecular menu
At Azul, guests arrive to the sound of water trickling rain-like alongside a marble-and-tile-clad open kitchen. This peaceful, feng shui welcome has been in place since the restaurant premiered at Miami's Mandarin Oriental Hotel in December 2000, and so has the interior: a softly lit dining area with linen-draped tables facing floor-to-ceiling windows that wrap the room with a condo-lined vista of Biscayne Bay. Ambiance too remains the same: on the dull and stuffy side.
The food, though, has changed quite a bit since new chef de cuisine Joel Huff's arrival last February. Azul has seen few toque turnovers during its tenure: Michelle Bernstein and Clay Conley are the only predecessors. Those are two big pairs of shoes to fill. Unfortunately, Huff's dishes are ambitious but ultimately too inconsistent to match up.
Huff has two decades of kitchen experience stretching from his native California to Southeast Asia to Australia. His more notable stints, however, may well have been at the Mandarin Oriental in New York under chef Nori Sugie and as chef de cuisine of Saam at the Bazaar by José Andrés in Beverly Hills.
The food from Huff, sous chef Brad Kilgore, and assistant chef de cuisine Jacob Ananay is described as "modern European with American and Asian influences." But Sugie's and Andrés's roots reverberate so loudly through the menu that it should be called "modern Spanish/Mediterranean with Asian influences."
Through Andrés, who's often credited with popularizing small-plate dining in this country, Huff is just two degrees removed from Spanish molecular gastronomy master Ferran Adrià. Indeed, the notion of many teeny flavors in petite portions conspiring to form a larger-than-life meal is at play here. But instead of a procession of miniature courses, the tiny taste explosives come bundled upon each plate. Too many misfire.
When it works well, as with a smoked octopus appetizer, it's like incongruous musicians harmonizing in surprisingly moving ways. When it doesn't work, as with an Alaskan king crab appetizer, it's like a variety show with jugglers, drag queens, and clowns crammed onstage at once, each clamoring for attention.
The petite cylinder of crab leg comes accompanied by bits of avocado, squash, pickled purple potato, a couple of Spanish ham chips, thin white circles of milk and Korean black garlic pudding. There are likewise flavored squiggles of an indeterminate nature on the plate. Is the diner supposed to spear a fragment of each microbe-size ingredient with every forkful? Or are we to pick and choose our matchups — purple potato with crab, squash with ham chips, milk circles with avocado and garlic pudding?
The octopus is even more complicated. The tentacle is seasoned with madras curry and other spices. Then it's cooked sous vide for 12 to 14 hours with leek, ginger, garlic, jalapeño, various aromatics, and fresh herbs. After that, it gets smoked and served with a parallel braid of cauliflower purée colored bright yellow via a French vadouvan curry mix. Bits of brown-buttered baba ghannouj dot the plate, with crisped eggplant skin and crisped cauliflower greens sprouting from those dabs. A brunoise of preserved lemon, tiny pink grapefruit segments, pea shoots, leek rings, and hibiscus leaves likewise lend texture and flavor, as do olive oil and swirls of squid ink/Pedro Ximénez vinaigrette. You might call it "tweezer cuisine," but it's tasty.
So is carnaroli rice risotto cooked al dente in a creamy base bolstered by the flavor of chanterelles and other wild mushrooms. A soft-cooked egg on top, prepared just right, oozes extra richness into the grains. The bowl of risotto is served in a larger bowl of what is called "forest floor" — stones, moss, bay leaves, cedar wood, and a lot of rosemary. The waiter pours hot tea onto the earthy mix, and the aromatics rise toward the nasal septum — so while you eat, there is a strong aroma that contributes to the flavor (in this case rosemary was dominant; some at the table thought too much so).
Warm pumpkin soup is perfectly delectable with goat cheese, matchsticks of sweetly roasted squash, nubs of cipollini onions, and brown-butter-coated rock shrimp. The only quibble is that by the time your palate becomes deliriously addicted to the subtly sweet flavor, there are no more spoonfuls. This type of dining, of course, is defined by precious presentation, but surely the shallow bowl could be filled a third of the way up instead of a quarter.
Even oysters on the half shell, usually considered fully dressed if splashed with mignonette sauce, are laden with fresh wasabi, watermelon radish, grated Asian pear, and shaved hibiscus granita; it's a bold mouthful of flavors, but the delicate salinity of the oyster is all but lost.
Entrées are likewise inconsistent. Our favorite is 72-hour braised Wagyu short ribs (described by the waiter as the "most linear" of the offerings — meaning the closest to a regular plate of food). Three über-tender, very flavorful flanks of boneless meat in silky, shiny demi-glace come accented with port wine. Accompaniments are baby carrots and turnips, mousse-like parsnip purée, and fresh palm hearts stuffed with palm hearts purée.
Sake-marinated black cod is served in faux-hot-pot form — meaning warm ham-hocked dashi broth gets poured over the fish as well as mushrooms, paper-thin cuts of carrots, and lotus root. An authentic hot pot features the broth cooking the vegetables, but here they are blanched beforehand. The buttery fish didn't really need foie gras seeped into it for added richness; it's a shame to torture a goose for so little return.
Duck breast is served in two thick, steak-like wedges. Our waiter suggested we order it medium, even though duck breast is generally regarded best when rare or medium-rare. We ordered the latter, and the meat, with crisp skin and full flavor, was on the dry side. Pan-fried Sicilian pistachio-crusted gnocchi seemed heavy and almost more like croquettes than dumplings. Baby root vegetables shared the plate, including buttons of inadvertently raw turnip, some purées, and sauce albuféra — usually a boosted velouté but here a chicken jus.
Pan-seared branzino fillet is served in a rather small bowl with braised fennel and Belgian endive, Marcona almonds, Spanish ham, a sumptuous potato-bacalao purée, a single plump and luscious sea scallop, and a thick red-pepper- (and almond-) based Catalonian romesco sauce. What a mess: The pile-up of ingredients and flavors collide like a multiple car crash. (The branzino, though, was fresh and faultless.)
Azul's wine program is one of Miami's elite. Overseen by sommelier Cynthia Betancourt, it features more than 700 labels — from classic vintages to current boutique releases. They don't come cheap, but neither does the food: Starters are $18 to $21, and entrées run $35 to $48 (with the steak going for $70). Valet parking with validation is still $13 — a rip-off that serves as a last impression when driving away after dinner.
The waitstaff is well trained in formal service, and guests are unquestionably pampered. Yet many in the crew perform like nervous Broadway stand-ins — sure of their lines and cues but hampered by a self-consciousness that they are not yet seasoned pros. On one occasion, we were served by a confident professional whose description of each dish was as detailed as Dickens. Other waiters were not nearly as informed, and there were too many "How was it?" queries lobbed our way between courses. Funny, some of the staffers are as formal and rote as butlers; others lapse into inappropriately informal banter — like commenting "Guess you didn't like that much!" when picking up an empty plate.
There were also too many service lapses for so haute a setting. Once, when we dined early and the room was mostly empty, a cluster of waiters, including ours, stood around chatting while we waited to place our order. On another, busier visit, we waited quite awhile for empty water glasses to be replenished, and later for empty entrée plates to be removed; we sat patiently once again for dessert menus to arrive.
On the other hand, we enjoyed the desserts. What can only be called a "shroud" of ethereally light hazelnut "cloud cake" is soaked with passionfruit syrup and served with thin rectangles of pineapple, hazelnuts, and a terrific mango-vanilla sorbet. Goat cheese/almond cake is a creamy cylinder of tart/sweet cheesecake atop a base of dense, almost cookie-like almond cake, with a scoop of morello cherry-pistachio ice cream and fresh raspberries studded with pumpkin seeds served alongside.
That the two-cake cylinder is served on its side for no apparent reason — other than making it roll around as you stab at it with your fork — is emblematic of what bugs me about this place. Even the most sublime flavors can be undermined by too many intricate touches.
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