Villa Azur's Pricey Mediterranean Fare Is Fresh but Nothing Special
Actor Olivier Martinez confirmed his engagement to Halle Berry at a promotional affair for Villa Azur, which he co-owns with French friends Michael Martin and Jean Philippe Bernard. Martinez has been called "the French Brad Pitt." Martin has been hosting nightlife parties at sundry South Beach clubs since he arrived here in 1995. Bernard brings management expertise from, most recently, Nikki Beach properties. And Halle Berry, as you know, is hot, but has nothing to do with this venture. The trio's aim is to bring the French Riviera to the American Riviera, or more specifically, to import "the South of France lifestyle to South Beach."
Just what South Beach needs: more lifestyle.
You can never have too many beautiful dining spaces, though, and Villa Azur is certainly lovely. The indoor area, which encompasses a bar and lounge alongside the dining room, mimics the sleek, sumptuous, yet relaxed style of cafés on the Côte d'Azur. It's a medley of modern décor and country French: wood plank floors, bookshelves, chandeliers, sconces, fireplaces, flowing drapes, high-backed chairs, and a DJ booth. French doors open onto a leafy, lushly landscaped courtyard patio — one of the prettiest around.
The menu of executive chef Mickael Bensa, a native of Nice (and most recently chef de cuisine at the Strand in Saint-Tropez), concentrates mostly on Mediterranean territory, with occasional forays into other parts of France and Italy. Butter, not olive oil, accompanies a basket of assorted predinner rolls, but so does tapenade; our serving, unfortunately, tasted tinny.
Otherwise, the fare proved fresh and was prepared in a competent fashion. Nothing, however, stood out as special. One uninspired dish followed another to the table like a string of second-tier stars strutting the red carpet during an off year at the Oscars.
Asparagus and vegetable salad translates to five peeled, poached, undressed asparagus spears protruding from a perky mound of field greens and herbs capped with circles of grilled eggplant and wide strips of roasted red pepper. The leaves are dressed with truffle oil and light vinaigrette. Pecorino shavings grace the top.
Truffle oil likewise accents seared shingles of raw, pink-centered tuna interspersed with ripe half-moons of avocado; squiggles of oyster sauce zigzag across the components, which line up on a narrow, rectangular strip of baby spinach leaves.
Among à la carte sides are macaroni with truffles and "homemade" truffle mashed potatoes — as if mashed potatoes are normally premade and shipped in from elsewhere, and as if the only way to create impressive cuisine is to top it with truffles or truffle oil.
Other appetizers feature mild twists on familiar matchups. Milky burratina cheese is plated with grape tomatoes and basil; artichokes partner with cherry tomatoes and Reggiano shavings; sun-dried tomato salsa sides fried calamari; caponata comes with grilled baby octopus; hand-minced beef tartare is accompanied by a quail egg.
A full raw bar of sea-culled delicacies is proffered — oysters, clams, langoustines, and lobster, along with Petrossian caviar in all its glorious forms (with blini and other accompaniments). Those are more or less obligatory offerings for the jet-set clientele Villa Azur seeks.
There are three pasta selections: orecchiette with clams; morel mushrooms and lightly creamed morel sauce clinging to rigatoni; and penne rigate with a "light cream à la vodka sauce topped with caviar." The last dish brings penne bathed in a sweet cream reduction lusciously capped with crème fraîche, caviar, and (too many) chopped scallions. It should, however, be called penne with caviar and scallion cream sauce, for the onion flavor far outweighs any slight tartness derived from cooked-off vodka (plus there was no tomato in the cream, which might surprise fans of traditional penne alla vodka).
Morels spring up again in the sauce that's served over an eight-ounce beef tenderloin. A 12-ounce rib eye gets crowned with Béarnaise, veal "filet mignon" is stuffed with artichokes, tomato confit, and scamorza cheese, and chicken breast is rolled with bresaola, marinated pepper, and mozzarella. The lightest of the meat dishes would seem to be veal scaloppine in lemon sauce, but a quintet of small, thin cutlets each sits upon a thick disk of soft polenta — which sops up the scanty amount of sauce and leaves the diner with flimsy bites of veal and enough cornmeal to sate a dozen starving peasants.
"Mediterranean bouillabaisse casserole" is served in a heavy cast-iron pot with a lid — a presentation that brings smiles to diners and muscles to waiters, bussers, and dishwashers. A rustic shellfish broth redolent of lobster is stocked with large head-on prawns, mussels, and small, meaty fillets of sea bream, red snapper, and monkfish. Hefty rounds of broth-soaked potato sit in the pot too; on the side is a plate of four Melba toast croutons, a thin rouille, and grated cheese meant to be assembled and floated in the soup.
Less involved seafood entrées include Dover sole à la meunière, tiger prawns with fried basil, and grilled branzino with red pepper coulis and a quartet of baby artichokes.
Tables with multiple diners, or duos with similar tastes, may opt for any of a series of "to share or not" courses. Whole roasted organic chicken is tendered with olive and thyme or with truffles ($50/$60), a 32-ounce Chateaubriand is gussied up with foie gras sauce and Béarnaise, and Maine lobster is lavished with "mango virgin sauce" — market price was $75, which made me afraid to ask what they meant by "virgin."
Villa Azur is an ideal venue for spending a leisurely cocktail hour. The list of elixirs is long and temptingly touts inventive mixes. Sharing a Chardonnay in the garden would be quite romantic, and there's a wine cellar's worth of bottles from which to choose. Literally: La Cave d'Azur is an on-premises market of some 190 wines and champagnes from France, Italy, Spain, and North America — from small village appellations to Grand Cru Classé. Many of the bottles start around $100, and markups are higher than the blood pressure of the average middle-aged man lounging on a Saint-Tropez beach.
La Cave also boasts a delicatessen of charcuterie, cheeses, breads, and pastries, as well as a menu of light "gourmet" bites, including the aforementioned caviars, foie gras, and smoked fish.
Nutella mousse, tarte tatin with almond milk ice cream, and mint-and-chocolate profiteroles sounded more alluring to us than most of the main courses. Brightly colored macarons provide a lighter sendoff, as does an ethereal île flottante (a "floating island" of whipped, sweetened egg whites poached in milk).
Lemon meringue tarte, however, was too cute for its own good. The custard filled a small coffin of hard graham crust capped with four puffs of bronzed meringue — each squiring a square of white chocolate. Even if the shell were not overbaked, I'd still prefer the more generous ratio of custard-to-crust found in everyday pie.
The staff is mostly French and all-around hospitable (diners are given complimentary passionfruit cocktail shots after dinner). Plus, waiters bear a professional look, and their tableside manners are smooth, but we waited too long for finished main plates to be removed, to get the check, and for just about everything toward our meal's end when the patio was filling up.
No expense was spared in assembling this stunning and sprawling restaurant and wine market complex. Much attention has been paid to detail, from the caviars to the cocktails, lighting, music, décor, and staff uniforms. Yet nobody thought to implement the simple diner positioning system used by every coffee shop in America to avoid the embarrassment of having to auction off the food — as in the server holding plates up one by one and asking, "Who gets the veal?" followed by a raise of the appropriate diner's hand, and then, "The bouillabaisse?" until all the dishes have been claimed.
If only Villa Azur's team were as unabashedly ambitious with its service and cuisine as it is with the restaurant's overall concept.
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