Jacob Anaya had some big shoes to fill when he was named chef at Azul one year ago. Michelle Bernstein came to fame here. Clay Conley, who oversees not one but two Palm Beach restaurants, cooked here.
Each chef brought a unique perspective to the restaurant, and now comes Anaya, whose skill and creativity helped Azul earn the prestigious 2013 Forbes Travel Guide five-star rating. Azul is one of just two Florida restaurants to receive the award.
Anaya has created a menu that appeals not only to the Mandarin's demanding international travelers, but also to locals willing to pay for the kind of formal dining experience Azul provides. It sometimes feels like one of the few such experiences left. But by "formal," I don't mean "old-fashioned." The only thing old about Azul is the decor, which will be freshened up later this year. Thank goodness for the glorious view of the Miami skyline.
The Mandarin Oriental gives its chefs full reign, and Anaya's menu is a reflection of his culinary career, which started in San Francisco before taking him to Australia and Hawaii. He's worked for the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons. He's traveled through Asia. I don't see much of South Florida in his current menu, but it is forever changing.
There's caviar, of course. But start instead with Hawaiian tuna poké ($22), a blast of the ocean on a plate. Poké means "to cut or slice" in Hawaiian, and in this dish, the ingredients all serve to further fine-tune the fresh tuna flavors: white soy, chili water, seaweed macadamia nuts and purple potato. Tabbouleh and squash salad ($15) is a composed salad that's best when you can manage to get all the flavors and textures in one bite. Among its elements are quinoa to replace traditional bulgur, plus goat-cheese feta, roasted tomato, eggplant caviar and onion puree.
Burrata BLT ($17) seems to be a dish on the way to becoming something else. A play on the sandwich, creamy (burrata) and salty (applewood smoked bacon) meet crunchy (lettuce) and nutty (pine nuts). It works. Likewise, Truffle "Steak and Eggs" ($24) works because it's all about showcasing the D'Artagnan beef tartare with help from mushrooms, a runny quail egg and just enough truffle to not overpower everything else.
I loved it when Anaya told me over the phone that his foie gras appetizer ($25) was inspired by Homer Simpson's love of doughnuts. There's even Hudson Valley foie gras in the batter for the cocoa nib pastries. The "flavors of strawberry" include strawberry powder and dried strawberry. To paraphrase Homer, is there anything doughnuts can't do?
Is there anything Anaya can't do? I asked myself that question when a buttery, medium-rare fillet of Scottish salmon ($35) came to the table. Thin slices of baby squash are placed on the fillet to resemble scales. The dish is cooked sous vide with basil and then lightly brushed with basil oil and lemon before being plated in classic style with beluga lentils and beurre rouge. Likewise, Idaho rainbow trout ($35) with pearl onions is sauced with a brown-butter lemon vinaigrette that elevates this simple fish into something magical.
Lobster pot pie ($55) riffs on lobster thermidor, with the meat poached in butter and then mixed with fresh peas, carrots and mushrooms. It's topped with a round of puff pastry. If you like beef, order the D'Artagnan New York strip loin ($65), served with short-rib ragout. Splurge and use all the bearnaise sauce, because it changes the taste of the entire dish.
Wine service and the list are exceptional. It's kept in a dramatic wall of cabinets as you walk into the restaurant. Todd Philipps may be the most down-to-earth wine director in South Florida.
Like Anaya, pastry chef Frederic Monnet's creations combine classical technique with current flavors. Genoa almond cake and goat-cheese mousse ($11) get beet-yogurt meringue and raspberry sorbet. His panna cotta ($11) is flavored with pistachio and lavender honey, but gets an assist with peanut brittle, rhubarb coulis and apricot-passion sorbet. Hazelnut chocolate cake ($12) arrives with soft lemon jelly and white-chocolate sorbet. Unlike so many pastry chefs, Monnet's desserts are never cutesy, but thoroughly modern.
Dinner at Azul had me wanting to order everything on the menu. Anything to make the meal last longer.
500 Brickell Key Drive, Mandarin Oriental, Miami
Cost: Very expensive
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Reservations: Strongly suggested
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Quietly conversational
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: $13 valet