It is clear that Azul, located in the Mandarin Oriental and where celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein cut her culinary teeth, is all about the food when they walk you through the kitchen on the way to your table. Not literally, of course, but for all intents and purposes you walk by the glass windowed, spotless stainless work space to behold white hatted chefs and cooks doing their work as you make your way to the hostess stand. Just as you think you’ve got it figured out, you hear water and notice there’s a plane of water falling in front of the kitchen and a sculpture of a giant crab in front of the hostess stand. Azul, meaning blue in Espanol, could be taken as a reference to the beautiful blue waters of Biscayne located outside the dining room, the seafood served that comes from the “blue”, or the baby or black blue (depending on the time of day) of the sky. My husband and I had a great table for two, right by the window, overlooking the bay, but thanks to Hurricane Issac, it was grey instead of Azul. But, also thanks to Issac, we were able to score a 7:30 reservation instead of our original 9:30 one. I made the reservation through Open Table for Miami Spice (3 course prix menu in August and September). When the very pleasant hostess called me to confirm, I asked if we could switch to an earlier time and luckily it worked out.
The restaurant is a comfortable setting of blonde woods, caramel suede chairs and white tablecloths, with soft lighting and jazzy Latin music playing overhead. We had barely been seated, when our waiter came over to inquire flat or sparkling water. Service was impeccable. Miami Spice is prominently displayed and our waiter mentioned it as well. Luckily, my husband and I wanted different items off the Spice Menu, so it worked out perfectly. They had a Wine Flight, but I opted to get just one glass of the wine paired with my entrée (a Pinot Noir from California), while hubby got an iced tea. We were presented with an amuse bouche on a stainless spoon- “our version of Borscht”, according to our waiter. It was a violet colored creamy mound, topped with a spherical poached cucumber and two teeny champagne grapes. We both really enjoyed it; the borscht had a kick of vinegar to it, and the bland crunchy cucumber and the pop of the sweet grapes, all made it a very enjoyable bite. It did amuse my mouth! There were four kinds of bread served in a lotus napkined dish- whole grain, raisin with nuts, a baguette and a jalapeno spiked corn muffin cooked in a Madeline pan. One way I judge a restaurant is on the quality of its bread and all of the varieties were delicious.
I ordered the Lobster Bisque for my first course. A bowl with white foam arrived, into which the bisque was poured from a white ceramic pitcher. The presentation was nice, but I wasn’t prepared for the bisque to be green! This kind of shock (like getting green eggs and ham), when you’re expecting smooth, peachy bisque, is typical of Azul. This is one of the charms and humors of Azul- you’re thinking one thing and tasting something different. The kitchen always doesn’t rest on old standards, but reinvents them, keeping diners guessing. The waiter explained that it was green curry lobster bisque. It had a good flavor, with a hint of sesame oil, and instead of chunks of lobster, baby bay scallops- symmetrical round disks of tender white flesh- awaited my spoon at the bottom of the bowl. My husband got the ceviche, presented in a glass bowl filled with blue ice, and decorated with seaweed. The ceviche, a white corvine, had a nice kick to it and was garnished with veggie chips, mimicking the seaweed theme. The presentation was over-the-top Azul.
For dinner, my husband ordered the papparadelle pasta, which came with zucchini strips (which mimicked the look of the pasta). It came with rectangular slices of lobster sausage and lemon sauce (which was foam poured over the bowl) and round specks of black caviar. My husband asked “Where’s the rest of my meal?” since it was a rather small portion. He said he couldn’t really taste the lobster in the sausage and while he liked the separate components, it didn’t provide the “wow” factor of flavor he was looking for. I ordered the Wagu Beef Cheeks, which came with celery puree and a mushroom ragout. The beef cheeks were delicious and fall apart tender. I didn’t think the celery smear added much to the dish, look wise or taste wise. The mushroom ragout was okay. I enjoyed this dish overall and Zeke liked it better than his.
My dessert was my favorite part of the meal. I got the chocolate cake with coconut sorbet and caramelized macadamia nuts. There were little plops of green cream, but when I tasted them, I thought yellow- as in banana. I heard the waiter tell another table it was avocado and banana puree. This is another way Azul takes a playful approach with food that keeps you on you culinary toes (or taste buds); you never know what to expect. Anyway, the cake had a hard chocolate top, floating atop the rich chocolate cake, paired with a quenelle of cool coconut ice cream and accented with crunchy macadamia nuts. It all worked together in a delicious mélange of flavors. My husband got the panna cotta, which came atop a sponge cake base, with a peach sorbet and nut brittle wafers. It was very good as well.
The atmosphere at the Mandarin is lovely, from the Latin Jazz playing, to the lively crowd of sophisticated diners and the beautiful view. The restrooms are not in the restaurant, but located downstairs. I’d been looking forward to coming to Azul for a very long time and I have to say it was worth the wait. Although, it’s not a restaurant I would frequent on a regular basis, I really appreciate the respect they show to the business of dining out-- from the friendly hostess, inventive food, subtle décor and amazing service. Cudos!
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