First Bites

Azul: Joel Huff's New Haute Cuisine (Pictures)

​We were starting to wonder when the heck Chef Joel Huff was going to be brave enough to invite us to try "his" Azul and finally, thank the heavens, we got our big moment Wednesday night when the Mandarin Oriental, Miami staff extended the invitation. And folks, trust us when we tell you it was worth the wait.

Back in early May we sat down with the freshly transplanted surfer dude (read the interview here to refresh your memory) and were left wondering what the heck "modern American" dishes with "Asian influences and European techniques" would mean. Now that we've been schooled, we're happy to show and tell.

The evening began with passed hors d'oeuvres like smoked octopus and tamarind flowers blanked under curried lavosh; Canadian oysters with Pedro Ximenez mignonette (it's a type of grape, not the name of the guy who came up with the concoction), Asian pear, Oregon wasabi (was anyone else aware that the green stuff is grown in the Pacific Northwest?), and hibiscus granita; along with almond gazpacho dusted with foie gras snow and orange segments. If you wouldn't recognize what half these ingredients are, don't feel too ignorant: It's obvious the staff has been put through a bit of coursework to explain what the heck everything is. Many of Huff's ingredients are entirely unfamiliar to this market and one of the servers admitted that a gastronomic dictionary or two is kept in the kitchen for reference.

Anyhow the official meal started off with drama as they set the amuse bouche, "Eggs & Caviar," ($45) at our places. Served in a sawed-off, silver-sprayed eggshell was a silky blend of sous vide quail egg and caramelized onions topped with American Osetra and gold leaf. Divine and delicious.

Diners were then given a choice of either a deconstructed panzanella salad ($23) or Toro/Iberico with basil oil and yuzu gelee to start with, then we were all given a bowl of Carnaroli onion risotto ($28) with duck proscuitto, pickled onions and brandy gel. Our advice is to mix it all together for the best effect.

An A5 Australian Kobe New York ($85) was paired with 72-hour short rib for the main course, unless diners wished to opt for the sake-marinated black cod ($45) served with hamhock dashi. Hear us now when we tell you this dish will make the de rigueur "Chilean" sea bass dish we see at every damn restaurant totally obsolete.

And, though he had a staff of diligent pastry chefs at his service, each and every dessert plate wasn't released from the kitchen until Huff primped it to perfection. Imagine being presented with a yogurt cloud cake--something that looked like a fluffy pile of coconut flakes but tasted like pound cake (and even featured an oversized "pound" sign in case you didn't get the hint)--topped with fresh berries, rhubarb, and strawberry syrup, then paired with a scoop of Meyer lemon ice cream.

The only thing that seemed the same at Azul that night was the décor, but Huff mentioned design changes are underway to match the updated menu and attitude of the highly lauded restaurant.

To sum it up, we'll say there is no other place in Miami a diner can have this type of elevated experience. If Huff can consistently put out meals as carefully prepared as the ones we ate last night, it's safe to say the Bernstein/Conley legacy will live long and prosper. The Mandarin Oriental, Miami's reputation for finery remains intact.

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Riki Altman