By Molly Gore
By Molly Gore
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By Lou Bustamante
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By Ashley Goldsmith
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By John Birdsall
Of all the restaurants I've eaten at this year, I don't think any proved as tantalizing in advance, as exquisite to anticipate, as LuLu's upscale little sister, Azie. "Exquisite" is a word that should be used a lot when describing Azie, which is almost French for "Asia" (Asie), and while I adore that name and everything it implies, the Nine Bites appetizer I kept reading about was the thing that haunted me most.
Just say it: "Nine Bites." I didn't even know what the Nine Bites were, because I stopped reading every time I came to the words "Nine Bites," to enhance my longing with a subtle undertone of mystery. I'd sit back, stare out the window, and imagine my Nine Bites. From what corners of the globe would they be drawn?
Desire is such an exquisite spice.
826 Folsom St.
San Francisco, CA 94107-1166
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
538-0918. Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner every night from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. on weekends). Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: valet available, otherwise moderate to difficult. Muni: 12, 30, 45. Noise level: moderate.
Nine Bites $20
Coconut milk risotto with braised duck $12
Teriyaki-spiced smoked quails $25
Wasabi sesame-crusted halibut $27
Whole fish two ways $29
Banana empress rolls $8
Azie Bloody Mary $7
In fact, Nine Bites didn't seem like enough: I wanted nine times Nine Bites, or, even better, 9,999 x 9,999 Bites, which makes 99,980,001 Bites. Throw in a lush, tropical island, then maybe a basketball court, my magazine subscriptions, some people to hang out with, lots of music, an endless supply of Zombies and wasabi Bloody Marys, and then Deborah, a goddess among waitresses with a proper English accent who made our 2-1/4-hour meal at Azie flow so smoothly my brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and I never, ever wanted to leave, and God, if you're reading this, that's how I'd like my corner of heaven to be decorated.
Open since December, Azie would appear to be firing on all cylinders, from chef Jody Denton's cunning, exquisitely executed French-Asian menu to the restaurant's fusion of the professionalism one comes to expect at high-end establishments with an energetic, youthful urban hipness. If LuLu has the look of a sprawling, cavernous banquet hall, stepping into Azie is like discovering a quiet alcove in the Far East, an eclectic, high-ceilinged space decorated with paper lanterns, a silk chandelier, a gorgeous, second-level mezzanine, and booths set here and there almost randomly. A DJ spins records at the bar -- yes, it is a bit funky -- while a panel of mirrors rises from behind rows of liquor bottles, each mirror tilted at a slightly different angle to capture a different glimpse of Azie: a light burning behind paper, a splash of the smoky orange that gives the place a warm, embracing feel. In the open kitchen, chefs in white jackets perform miracles under bright lights, as if pursuing their craft in another dimension. Even the waitstaff, dressed in black vests, long aprons, and white collarless shirts, looks sharp, and proved as accommodating and friendly as any I've ever encountered.
Consider, for example, the manner in which we were greeted: Having dedicated the day to celebrating John and Leslie's birthtween (one birthday a week earlier, the other a week later), we'd spent the afternoon at the new ballpark, then headed to Extreme Pizza to drink beer until our 5:30 reservation. By the time we arrived at Azie, Nathan, who's 4, was quite audibly hungry, and kept demanding the kid's meal as we slid into one of three "abacus" booths, equipped with abacuses, wood shutters, and curtains that can be drawn shut in case, you know, you need to discuss family business.
Predictably, Azie had no kid's meal, and while Nathan isn't an overly picky eater, what he really, really wanted was a hamburger. Azie has no hamburgers either, we were told, as a handful of servers gathered around our table to solve this very serious problem. One suggested the grilled beef tenderloin from the tasting menu, which sounded fine, and then, a minute later, another said he'd procured some hamburger next door at LuLu and that the burger was already cooking. It was the first burger in the history of Azie -- thick, juicy, served with wedge-cut fries, tomato, lettuce, and red onion, the edges of the bread slightly toasted, just the way Nathan likes it. Then, paper and Magic Markers arrived without our even asking, and that was the last we heard from my nephew for quite a while.
Thus we turned to more adult pursuits, perusing a menu that could annihilate the most bottomless expense account: osetra and beluga caviar, a $58 tasting menu, a $50 vegetarian tasting menu, and a wine list that reads like a novel, with some 20 wines by the glass, a half-dozen imported sakes, 30 sparkling wines, and bottles ranging from the humble $20 jug to the $2,200 Romanee-Conti 1988 (and anyone who spends that much on wine without donating $22,000 to charity the following day will not be welcome in my corner of heaven). We selected ... liquor: a good, classic Singapore Sling, a refreshing plum sake cocktail (plum sake and vodka over crushed ice), a perfect, steely Poire William vodka martini, a luscious, fruity, truly dangerous Zombie, and then, the Zombie's antidote, a garden-fresh Azie Bloody Mary spiced with wasabi and soy sauce and served in a tall, slender pilsener glass rimmed with salt and black sesame seeds, the latter of which clung to the lips after each sip and made for a delicate little nibble until the next.
And then, under the guidance of the beautifully accented Deborah -- who could charm the heat out of a jalapeño, knew everything about everything, and, as it so happened, had been sky diving that day -- we ate. We began with a half-dozen glistening-fresh oysters splashed with a light sake mignonette and tobiko, and, of course, Nine Bites -- nine square dishes arranged on a square platter, each adorned with a tidbit from the tasting, dinner, and bar menus.
I won't say every Bite took us to the exquisite fringe of perfect deliciousness -- we had another oyster, spicy fish tartare, a sausage-shrimp bundle with sweet-and-sour sauce, and a crisp, pearl onion-potato dumpling. But some did: a torchon of rich, creamy foie gras over celery root salad, a perfect baby-back rib, crisp and well done and falling off the bone, a silky, lightly spicy lobster pot de crème, a roll of exquisitely piquant jasmine tea-cured salmon, and tuna sashimi wrapped in shaved cucumber, bathed in a tart, earthy, pungent, electric, truly unbelievable truffle ponzu sauce. Throw in the 10th Bite (from Nathan's hamburger, which we all had to try), and then our third appetizer -- a square plate filled with brick-red curry, creamy, cloudlike coconut milk risotto, and braised duck -- and no corner of the palate was left untouched.
With prices in the $25 to $32 range, we expected the world from our three entrees, and got it from 2 3/4 of them. Leslie adored her wasabi sesame-crusted halibut with tender white asparagus and sweet, milky carrot jus, while John couldn't stop raving about his teriyaki-spiced smoked quails, so juicy and infused with flavor it was impossible not to acknowledge chef Denton's expertise. Both dishes were too beautiful to eat (we ate them anyway), though not as beautiful as my choice: a whole Thai snapper cooked two ways.
This arrived on a pair of white, rectangular plates that, when set together, formed a square. One half of the fish had been stir fried, then served over a blend of pea shoots, English peas, and chanterelles, infused with a mysterious taste of mustard, or anise, or perhaps celery, or all three. Though the vegetables were divine, this half of the fish seemed bland compared to the other, which was steamed the way it might be in traditional Chinese restaurants -- the tail, head, and skin still on (but boneless), swimming in a broth pocked with globes of rich, tangy fat. Except -- and here's the fusion part -- the fish was topped with two pale slices of foie gras whose flavor had seeped into the tender, melting flesh on an almost molecular level. None of us could taste this without his or her eyes rolling back, it was so rich, and all of us wanted the sensation to last forever.
Then came a bit more chitchat with Deborah, who, in what seemed like a single breath, told me John's quails had been smoked for 32 hours, that the mysterious flavor I tasted in the pea shoots was a blend of mustard seed, basil, chive, and coriander oils, then told Nathan about her favorite character from Stars Wars. And then, as if to prove she really was the female MacGyver, a wineglass fell from the next table and shattered, at which point Deborah flung her apron over the offending shards, then disappeared and returned in a clean, new apron, then continued chatting until an expediter handed her one ... two ... no, make that three desserts: a warm chocolate cake with a rich, molten center and kumquat ganache, served with three small scoops of ice cream, a summery peach tart with cardamom cream and peach frozen yogurt, and banana empress rolls wrapped in a chewy-crisp skin, served with peppered fudge sauce and silky banana crème fraîche ice cream.
We probably should have drawn the curtain to our booth, because things just got crazy after that. I remember Nathan standing over the table, his fork so huge it looked like a shovel; I remember moans; I remember that everything was spectacular; and then, finally, I remember that our desserts were gone. We weren't even full, really, since the portions at Azie are a bit svelte, but then, none of us was hungry, either (I didn't eat again until the following afternoon). We definitely had an appetite for one last treat, though -- four rich, creamy, cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles that accompanied the bill.
There are excellent restaurants, and then there are destinations. Count Azie among the latter.