Tom Azar and Steve Haas Take On City Hall

Short Order had a rare opportunity to sit down with a restaurateur and his chef to talk about a concept that hasn't yet opened its doors: the much-anticipated City Hall. When we visited the brasserie, which will be located on the site of a former Vespa dealership (2004 Biscayne Blvd.), fixtures were still being hung, paint was being applied, the sound system was in its testing phase, and the menu was being hashed out, but things appeared to be humming along on schedule in orderly anticipation of an April grand opening. We wanted to find out where the menu is headed because we're optimistic this could become a major foodie destination.

The 6,000-square-foot neighborhood joint is the brainchild of veteran restaurateur Steve Haas, known not only for his charitable actions (Haas is the guy we can thank for Miami Spice) but also for his political involvement (he was the first board chairman of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau). After working in tandem with heavy hitters at China Grill Management, Soyka, and a handful of Miami's other crown jewels, he decided it was time to launch a comfort-food concept. Emeril Lagasse protégé Tom Azar was quickly nabbed to be his top toque.

Here's what we know for sure that guests can expect: a huge open kitchen, two levels, an 80-foot-long light box mural, deep-ruby leather banquettes, shiny silver railings, and tin ceilings. Oh yeah, and some upside-down onion soup and highly competitive fried chicken. Bring on the bibs!

New Times: Here's the chicken versus egg question: Which came first, the concept or the chef?

Steve Haas: The concept was thought out before Tom, but Tom created the menu.

What was the concept?

SH: Serving a great burger to a great steak, but with a twist. A twist on flavor, on presentation... I don't want anything to be what is expected.

Can you give an example?

SH: The soup is being called the unconventional onion soup. What we're doing is instead of the cheese being melted on top, it's going to be a bowl with the cheese on the bottom, then wontons stuffed with onions and cheese, and then the waiter will be pouring the broth at the table.

Sounds yummy! But not very New Orleans-themed...

Tom Azar: Slightly influenced. We're going to have jambalaya, shrimp gumbo... well-balanced seasonings.

SH: It's the flavors. Much more flavor than normal comfort food.

Let's chat about the chef interview process. What parameters did you give Tom when you asked him to cook for you?

SH: I went to his house and the two families got to meet. I said do as many courses as you want, except I'm only asking one thing: I want fried chicken. His chicken was excellent.

We were there for five, six hours. Even though we did it at home, he was a professional. He wore a chef's jacket, did a wine pairing with each course, had menus printed... I was impressed.

And that cinched the deal?

SH: We matched immediately. First thing is about personality. You're working with somebody literally 70, 80 hours a week, so you have to like him. He knew flavors, style, how to expedite, because I watched all that at his house. You know, doing six courses in your kitchen on an electric stove, that's huge. There was no wait between courses. He was so on the money. I kind of offered him the position that night.

I like the guy. I saw a leader of his kitchen. I will not tolerate a chef who is temperamental, who is verbally and physically abusive, banging and screaming and hollering. I knew I'd have an open kitchen, so I need a personality. But I also need somebody who can go to tables, asking how things are, getting out there.

What do you predict will be become his signature dish?

SH: The timpano. I first had to describe it to him.

TA: I didn't know what it was.

SH: But then he produced it the very first time. We were both excited to cut it and see inside. It was so good! I thought, Oh my God! He got it on the first try. That was a winner.

I'm seriously excited about the timpano. We see the table ordering it for an appetizer even though it's an entrée dish. Everybody gets a slice kinda thing. It's an Italian kitchen sink.

And I think our skirt steak is going to be different.

TA: It's going to be a ten-ounce skirt steak marinated in olive oil, cilantro, cumin, chili powder, allspice -- a great Mediterranean marinade -- lots of garlic, shallots... marinated overnight; then it's grilled and cooled to temperature. It's going to be served with an Israeli couscous, lemon juice, olive oil, crumbled goat cheese, toasted pine nuts...

We're going to have a cut of ribs, a three-bone rib with the belly still attached. It's going to have a Memphis-style rub on, light smoke, slow-cooked. We're gonna serve it with barbecue baked beans and spoonbread.

What's spoonbread?

TA: It's like corn bread but much lighter. It's polenta with the addition of milk and eggs. It's got vegetables in it, a trinity with onions, peppers, garlic, creole seasonings, a little bit of spice, green onions. It's a flavorful corn soufflé.

Wow, that menu sounds like it's all over the map. Aren't you trying to hard to be everything to everyone?

SH: I really see it as a bistro-type restaurant with great diversity. American comfort food today is really cuisine from all over the world.

Tomorrow we'll find out about the real master at this joint, how Haas came up with the restaurant's name, where the heck Azar has been since he left Emeril's, and why you'll probably never see liver or rattlesnake on City Hall's menu.

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Riki Altman