Catch a Rising Star
Azul is a two-month-old 120-seat restaurant in the $100-million Mandarin Oriental on Brickell Key, actually housed on the side of the hotel, along with another eatery, Café Sambal, in a patinaed structure. The restaurant's interior , elegantly accented in rosewood, bamboo, white marble, stainless steel, and silk, impresses in an understatedly tasteful manner. Large windows offer breezy vistas of Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline during lunchtime, though at night they become rectangles of black glass that mainly reflect the elongated yellow- and champagne-color lampshades hanging from the ceiling. A big, bright, slightly elevated open kitchen commands the front of the room, while in the center a staircase leads down to Sambal (and the restrooms). Just past these stairs is a lovely lattice of metal that screens the dining area from the bar.
It's important you know where the bar is, because that's where you'll be sent upon arrival. Walk in without a reservation, and they'll claim to have no tables (even if it appears otherwise) and then suggest that you can wait "at the bar" while they see what can be done. Chances are pretty good they'll manage to seat you, but only after you spend time and $13 per drink (not including tip) at that bar. Show up for a 9:30 p.m. reservation at 9:30, and they'll ask you to wait "at the bar" while they prepare your table. This will take about twenty minutes, just long enough to dawdle over one, maybe two drinks apiece (ka-ching! ka-ching!). Of course not all alcoholic beverages will set you back $13 -- you can get a glass of Sterling Vineyards merlot or cabernet, the lowest-priced wines, for $12, which is 4 bucks more than if ordered from the table. It's foolish to quibble about pricing at a five-star hotel, and as far as the food goes I won't. It's expensive to dine here but no more so than at some dinkier spots on the Beach. That they systematically steer guests to a bar and then charge extortionate prices, however, is so flagrant an act of fleecing that I had to wonder, Would they also, at some point during the evening, grab me, turn me upside down, shake me, and collect any loose change that might fall from my pocket?
Of course that wasn't going to happen with a waitstaff as genteel as this one. They work hard, too, and generally succeed in providing far better service than is the norm in these parts. There were a few small flubs committed, like forgetting to bring butter with the scrumptious whole-wheat raisin bread, but that's bound to happen in a recently opened restaurant with newly trained staff.
Christian Schmidt is the Mandarin's executive chef, but Azul clearly is Michelle Bernstein's show. The cuisine is touted as a blend of Latin, tropical, Asian, and French influences, yet other than Michelle's signature Caribbean bouillabaisse, the food rarely strays from Asia or France, except occasionally to dip a toe in the Mediterranean. As in the crinkly pieces of cooked prosciutto flecked through a soothingly smooth truffled chestnut soup, whose flavors run deep with earthy undertones. Segue from soup to starter with a flawlessly fresh carpaccio of hamachi (fresh yellowtail flown in from Japan) luxuriating in a warm sesame-citrus sauce, with shaved fennel, cucumber baby tat soi (Asian greens), and a nugget of grilled hamachi in the center of the plate. The stimulating warm/cold, cooked/raw contrasts also are at work in the foie gras "study," a small square of foie gras terrine with a smaller piece of darkly caramelized, barely cooked foie gras in a pool of port wine reduced with shallots, verjus (sour green grape juice), and plump grapes. Two dark bread croutons on the side were petite as well, but the rich sweet-and-savory flavors are plenty big for an appetizer.
I shied away from fennel-dusted sweetbreads with prawns and braised cabbage because I'd read that the thymus (a less-marketable name for sweetbreads) is a particularly mad-cow-friendly gland. Haven't heard any bad news concerning rouget, though, the delicate white-fleshed Mediterranean fish served whole with bones removed, propped like a tent atop a salad of field greens with duck gizzards, fennel, and a lively Chinese mustard vinaigrette. Only problem was the grilled rouget showed no signs of having been grilled. Neither, for that matter, did "grilled" asparagus, an ample portion of brightly blanched stalks with sunny-side-up quail eggs, a slight smattering of crisp pancetta bits, and two croutons with a clove of roasted garlic on each. The components all match well with one another, but trying to combine a piece of asparagus, quail egg, and pancetta crisp on the same fork is nearly impossible. The red wine vinaigrette that was supposed to be included probably wouldn't have facilitated matters, but at least it would have dressed the naked asparagus and perhaps impressed the palate more.
After highly visible stints at Red Fish Grill, Tantra, and the Strand, chef Bernstein still is being referred to as a "rising culinary star," the sort of compliment that becomes less of one with each passing year. Azul's main courses warrant dropping the hesitant prefix of unfilled potential; this is star-driven cuisine. The seafood in particular is stellar, none more so than Chilean sea bass. This fish enjoys fadlike status and often is served moist and flaky, but the treatment here is revelatory in its ability to surpass the rest. The bass comes bathed in a bowl of broth infused with the Vietnamese fish sauce nuoc nam, lemon grass, ginger, basil, mint, cilantro, and perfumed leaves of kaffir lime (which women in Singapore used to wash their hair with to give it fragrance); teeny bits of mango and papaya contribute a mild sweetness. Vibrant vegetables surround the fish, along with two little side dishes: gingery black forbidden rice and Korean kim chee, which usually is a fermented and fiery pickled cabbage salad but is toned down considerably here. Florida snapper was equally mouthwatering, grilled over fennel branches and served in a poisson nage, a light seafood sauce finished with tomato, saffron, and butter.
A duo of dramatically delicious duck treatments came on the same plate -- a leg slow-cooked for five hours with rose water, star anise, lemon grass, and ginger; and rare breast slices with nary a trace of fat. Hoisin plum sauce sweetly complemented the bird without cloying and also permeated pearls of Israeli couscous; fresh plums poached in plum wine, and soft, spongy rice buns rounded out the plate (those familiar with Chinese food will recognize these as steamed pork buns without the pork). Short ribs were less successful, mainly because anticipated Thai chilis added little in the way of piquancy. The slowly braised meat was otherwise tasty, succulently flaking off the bone into a savory brown beef-and soy-based sauce.
Desserts sound a lot better than they taste. Chilled fruit in mei-kui-lu wine is described as a "green tea frozen mosaique," which actually is a slab of frozen whipped cream flavored with green tea and dotted with colorful suspensions of frozen fruit. It was reminiscent of cheap ice cream, though not as sweet. A special one night, banana dumplings, featured a quartet of slightly greasy fried dough balls with a smidgen of banana in each, along with a portion of coconut ice cream barely larger than the free samples coaxed out of ice cream shops before one decides which flavor to choose. Chocolate petals are parceled out even more parsimoniously, the dessert composed of two paper-thin ellipse-shaped pieces of fine bitter chocolate, perhaps three inches in length; a coconut wafer of same size; and a puff each of creamy chocolate mousse and turmeric mandarin ice cream sandwiched in between. If not for rules of decorum, I could've popped the whole thing in my mouth and consumed it in one gluttonous gulp. A julienne of sweet potato and splashes of raspberry and passion fruit purées were added, I suppose to fill in blank spaces on the rectangular white plate.
Azul's cuisine, excepting desserts, was consistently fresh, high quality, and delectable; only the bland asparagus qualified as a dud. Yet while the menu is solidly conceptualized and the execution nearly faultless, just a few dishes drew the oohs and aahs that come about when flavors bravely soar into higher territory than even the loftiest of expectations. I've no qualms with the no-nonsense presentation, at times simply lovely, other times simply simple, but Bernstein's food seems more restrained than usual -- and I don't just mean the chilis being timidly applied. If she were to let loose and allow her cooking to be as bold as the drink prices, this could become one of the very best restaurants in town.
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