"If you were on an airplane," my dining partner said to me halfway through our meal, "and I mean a nice airplane, in first class, and you got served this meal, you'd be incredibly psyched." He was right. It would beat the best airplane food I've ever eaten.
The meal at Azura started strong. The tom ka gai soup ($4.95) was a wonderful way to begin, full of strong, clear tastes weaving in and out of the coconut. I love it when a meal leads off with heat—and driven by ginger and chili, the soup's spiciness lit up my palate without making my eyes tear. The soup also showed a strong chef's hand, in the array of floating inedibles (lemongrass, large chunks of ginger, whole peppers, etc.) I was required to eat around. Their presence kept the flavors spiking through the soup, and in a subtle way announced that this was going to be a meal I had to pay attention to.
The assorted satay combination ($13.95) was similarly exciting, if only because the accompanying peanut sauce was such a pleasant alternative to the sweet beige paste most restaurants present—it was looser and less sugary, with clearer, better separated ingredients mingling in clean harmony. The ingredients interacted without losing their individual qualities, building the sauce without getting lost in it.
As the rest of the meal landed at the table, however, it was as if Azura became a completely different restaurant. Even the plating became less interesting; the first few courses were architectural, minimalist, and distinctive. What followed was a series of standard ovals of Asian food on standard oval platters, each one with a sprig of cilantro placed monotonously on top. Don't try to tell me this was anything more than the most mundane and corporate of nods to garnishing choices—cilantro doesn't go with everything.
The halibut sauté ($15.95) is pitched on the menu as the "best Seattle seafood dish." It's a mammoth claim, and appears on a menu that is obviously taking itself seriously. What arrived at the table was a basic stir-fry (cilantro on top) with small chunks of battered-and-fried halibut that were cooked so hard, I swear to God, both my dining partner and I thought at first that they were chunks of tofu. Both texture and taste were cooked right out of them. The saucing was good; nothing jumped out, there was no "Ah, the chef's using that" kind of moment, but it was passable, it was fine, it was... good.
"Good but uninteresting" was a theme that continued through the rest of the meal. As the other entrées arrived —orange chicken ($10.95), beef and broccoli ($10.95)—we ate without displeasure, but without noticing much about the food. Which is a pity for two reasons. First, Azura's hype is centered around their "philosophy of balance," a lovely statement that speaks of balancing yin and yang, enhancing natural integrations, and the meticulousness with which their classically trained chefs choose ingredients. And I bought into it for the first two courses; the focus on ingredients and flavor harmonies was obvious and showed the chefs' intent and inventiveness. But the restaurant's stated ideals fell apart as we dove deeper into the menu.
Azura's lack of culinary adventurousness is a pity for a second reason, and I believe this second reason is at the heart of the restaurant's problems. Azura is currently a one-off restaurant, not affiliated with a chain—but it soon will be. Azura is the testing ground for a chain of pan-Asian restaurants its owners hope to launch over the next few years. And so we're back to the airplane-food observation. As standardized recipes go, Azura's are fine. As repeatable targets, these dishes are infinitely copyable. But even in their first iteration, you can taste the copy. You can tell that the moment of invention (and the inventor) happened far from this night (and this kitchen).
If Azura could find a way to package the personality and artistic impulse present in the opening dishes of our meal, they would have something unique on their hands—a chain of corporate restaurants whose menu conveys the bold personal presence of an inventive chef. But this menu needs some tweaking before hitting the production line.