The upscale restaurant inside Brickell Key's Mandarin Oriental, has been helmed by many top toques. Michelle Bernstein, Clay Conley, Joel Huff and Jacob Anaya have all led the kitchen of Azul at some point since its inception. A sudden closure last year during the hotel's renovation period had many speculating whether the fine dining restaurant was going to reopen at all.
But it did so in April with a new look, new menu, and new chef. Previous sous chef William Crandall has stepped up to the plate as executive chef after being with the company for three years. Short Order was invited to get a taste of Crandall's new menu that's steered by French technique and Asian influences.
Crandall is from Germany. Prior to his stint at Azul, the chef honed his culinary skills under Michelin-starred Chef Andrew Zimmerman at NoMi restaurant in Chicago. Since November, Crandall has been at work on the new menu at Azul, ordering new plates and hardware to compliment his clean and simple aesthetics.
Crandall launched the new menu in late June, implementing lots of locally sourced ingredients and summer flair into the seasonal fare. "The biggest influence in the menu comes from approaching classic recipes and somehow making them modern through playing with textures," says Crandall. "Keeping the same train of thought and integrity of a dish but trying to utilize what's local and also paying respect to the Mandarin Oriental by adding some Asian influence where it's necessary and makes sense."
This isn't your mom's gazpacho ($17), or in this case, my mom. In Spain, day-old bread and tomatoes are used to make the cold tomato summer soup. Crandall forgoes both and instead opts for almonds (normally used in white gazpacho) and yuzu meringue.
"I wanted to make a soup that was a tad more acidic, had more sugar content, and made your palate water as you're eating it," says Crandall. "I wanted to use something natural instead of using bread because of people who suffer from celiac disease or gluten allergies, so I upped the amount of almonds, which really turned out to be a good idea because the yuzu and almonds balance out." A little something else to balance it out, some king crab and nastartium gelato. Allow it to melt into the gazpacho -- a spoonful will add a little fizzle.
"With weather like ours, the tuna poke is always a great way to start a meal," Crandall says. The most popular appetizer at Azul, the tuna poke ($25), is a fine example of Crandall's simplicity and straightforward approach to ingredients. "We're not necessarily trying to think about how many things we can put on a plate or how a plate can be overly decorated. Just about ingredients that make sense and compliment each other." Such is the case with the pickled mushrooms hidden between the chunks of tuna that are lightly sprinkled with macadamia nut and white soy.
Gems of the sea, these wild Maine scallops ($23) are as classically French are you can get. Well, almost. "I wish I could play the humble card and say that I'm reinventing the wheel but that's a dish that dates all way back to Joel Robuchon," Crandall says. "Only thing is they would put cheese on the scallops, which doesn't really mix that well for me, but then again I'm not French." There's also the squid ink sauce and dash of Asian influence by way of maitake mushrooms.
"If I had to pick something I would regret forever someone not trying when they dine at Azul, it would have to be the foie gras," says Crandall. "I really wanted to do something that showed foie's ability to not be the star of the show but a supporting actor to the main courses." Foie can be heavy and overbearing, so instead of making it into a classic terrine, Crandall whips some air into it and adds sweetness and acidity through beets and a blood orange gelee. If you're looking to start out an epic night right, order the foie, or even just come to Azul for this one dish. At $30, it's not cheap, but it's foie.
Moving into the main courses, Azul offers all the usual suspects you'd expect to find in a fine dining establishment -- loup de mer, truffled salmon, Maine lobster, Colorado lamb, and a N.Y. strip. We went with a pan-roasted turbot, served with glazed crab croquettes, pearl onions and a salsify puree ($41).
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"The dish I'm probably most proud of is the only one that was conceptualized around my German heritage," says Crandall. That would be the kurobuta pork belly ($47), which showcases both the belly and tenderloin of the hog and fuses French technique with Asian dry rub spices. "It's based off Sunday pork dinners my mom would make. She obviously wasn't using pork belly but she would crumble pumpernickel and finish baking it in the oven so it got gooey on bottom but overly crispy on top." A component of the dish he's recreated with his rendition, which fused with the braised cabbage, adds a melange of textures and flavor profiles.
We were too full for dessert, but got to nibble on some treats that packed a whole lot of strawberry and chocolate flavors into a single mouthful.
Follow Carla on Twitter @ohcarlucha