Where is the restaurant that will finally put Media on the map as the next budding West Chester, Collingswood or Manayunk? By all logic, it should be Azie. This newcomer is such a stunningly designed contemporary space, and has such a pedigreed kitchen - "one of the world's greatest Japanese chefs," according to the press release - I wasn't a bit surprised when the glowing propaganda started sizzling in my e-mail box.
But logic, I've since been reminded by a couple of less than stellar dinners here, doesn't do the cooking.
Azie is the latest creation from Win and Sutida Somboonsong, whose Teikoku in Newtown Square is one of the suburbs' handsomest destinations for sushi and Thai.
If Teikoku's warm wood decor is evocative of a traditional Asian lodge, Azie's crisp modern space is something altogether more urban, a bilevel jewel box with white leather chairs, a glowing golden bar, lily pad-shaped pendant lights, riverstone walls, and a glass bubble chandelier meant to suggest rainwater.
From behind the broad glass window that fronts the posh white dining room, one can sip cold daiginjo sake from bamboo carafes while the downtown trolleys rumble by.
Yes, Azie has a chic quotient that would rate in Center City's most stylish quarters. Even more attractive to food lovers, though, is the resume of Azie's chef, Takao Iinuma, who helped open Philadelphia's Morimoto as executive sous-chef, and, according to the press release, competed in 40 episodes of Iron Chef Japan, "winning 70 percent of his matchups."
The protege connection is obvious, as this menu borrows liberally from Morimoto's canon, from the rock shrimp tempura starter through the tofu cheesecake dessert. And Iinuma isn't the first chef to reproduce his sensei's greatest hits. But there is a startling disconnect between the original item and the dishes that landed on my tables here.
The rock shrimp tempura appetizer was so meekly fried, its crust was soggy by the time it arrived at our table, the chili aioli also so creamy it was bland. The sushi rolls - there are no straightforward nigiri here - are more flash than substance, with overly soft rice and such careless construction they often crumbled. A big maki rolled around a core of two fried shrimps was so sloppy, I peered through the gaping center of each round like a keyhole.
There were a couple of decent maki - one wrapped around warm Peking duck with the snap of scallion and crispy skin, and an Azie roll that brought the tasty harmony of spicy tuna, tempura crunchies, sweet eel sauce, and creamy avocado, even if it fell apart.
But this startling lack of finesse permeated the entire menu. The most persistent problem was a heavy hand with sauce. There was so much sesame-citrus ponzu dressing sloshing like a pool atop the kobe beef and salmon carpaccios, the natural flavors of the meat and fish were lost. The pristine essence of raw salmon and yellowtail was obliterated by the runaway chili spice and sour citrus of the seviche marinade.
The stiflingly dense reduced veal stock-balsamic gravy was probably the stickiest choice of sauce for the delicacy of a lobster and kobe beef surf and turf. That the half lobster tail was as small as a jumbo shrimp and the slice of kobe so slight it could have been a Steak-umm only added to the $25 disappointment.
It wasn't the only moment Azie felt overpriced. We paid $10 for a tiny champagne flute of raspberry lambic, which is outrageous, even if I was pleased to see several craft beers on tap.
Azie's pleasant young staff, to their credit, did an excellent job directing us knowledgeably through the menu and drinks list. And for the most part, the kitchen's issues were execution rather than price.
Most entrees hover around $20 or less, which is reasonable when the dishes work. The jumbo shrimp tempura ($17) had the snap and zing from a wasabi aioli that the rock shrimp appetizer didn't.
The seared scallops with citrus brown butter and wild mushrooms were a textbook example of solid Asian fusion.
A tuna appetizer glazed in kochujang-spiced miso was a catchy Korean twist to a familiar dish. I would have loved the deep-fried rice and seaweed canapes topped with spicy tuna if the rice crackers had been crunchier.
The sear-your-own kobe beef on a hot rock, a standard from Teikoku, would have been perfect if the rock had been hotter - it never quite grabbed the meat with a caramelizing sizzle. The grilled ribeye was a better bet for hungry carnivores, though the side of honey-glazed fries - on top of the sweet, dark steak sauce - gave the dish an oppressive sweetness.
One of the best entrees, oddly, was a tender pork chop smothered in a chunky Italian tomato sauce and mozzarella. It was one of a handful of seemingly random non-Asian dishes that lent this menu its purported "global" theme - joining a creamy New England clam chowder and a gorgonzola fondue with vegetable tempura. That fondue, of course, is yet another dish borrowed from Morimoto, though it is among the Iron Chef's more dubious creations. But the protege's addition of pungent Gruyere to the cheesy brew knocks it even more off track.
It wouldn't take much for this kitchen, and this truly promising restaurant, to get back on the right track. Downtown Media is ready and waiting.
On March 23, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Le Virtu in South Philadelphia. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or firstname.lastname@example.org.