When moviegoers saw Scarlett Johansson sing karaoke to Bill Murray in the 2003 flick Lost in Translation, everyone wanted to visit Japan, the new international capital of cool. We’ve adopted Yohji Yamamoto, Pokémon and Iron Chef. And there’s nothing we’d like to import more than Tokyo’s pulsing, neon-lit nightlife. With three recently opened restaurant/night spots invoking aspects of the new Far East, Philadelphia is joining other big cities in the quest to co-opt the cool factor of 21st-century Japan.
Azie opened on State Street in Media in the space that recently housed the dingy, dated West End Saloon. Owned by Win and Sudita Somboonsong, who also operate Teikoku and a clutch of other Asian-inflected restaurants in the western suburbs, Azie is billed as offering “global” cuisine, though the menu’s primary influence is obviously Japan. Both main players in the kitchen, executive chef Takao Iinuma and chef de cuisine Kazuyuki Mitsui, trained and worked there before coming to the U.S. to cook for Masaharu Morimoto at his flagship here in Philadelphia.
Azie’s stylish interior, complete with exquisite Italian chandeliers, white banquettes and natural stone details, is so polished and urbane that it’s easy to forget you’re in the quaint hamlet of Media. The suburban neighborhood is so excited to have access to this glam new spot that everyone is knocking back too many saketinis, and the noise roars. The revelry parallels Japan’s work-hard-drink-hard ethos, but it doesn’t match the restrained and dignified design.
Sushi rolls and appetizers are Azie’s best achievements. Tuna canapés sandwich a nori sheet between two layers of flattened and crispy sushi rice topped with silken raw tuna. The lean snap of the rice plays off the richness of the fish for a memorable mouthfeel. A yellowtail and salmon ceviche delivers velvety slices of fish in an intense bath of puckery jalapeño-spiked citrus. Shaved red onion, grape tomatoes and orange segments add even bigger flavor to the diminutive dish. The Azie roll is another raw-fish winner, with minced tuna and crackling bits of panko under sheets of thin-sliced avocado and a drizzle of spicy mayo.
Entrées are more subtle in their flavor combinations, but larger plates that hew to Japanese traditions are generally well executed. A honey-mustard miso-glazed black cod is served with a tangle of wild mushrooms. The fish is perfectly cooked, moist and soft, but the skin is flabby, and a few missed pin bones tarnish the overall dish. The yakitori bowl, a pillow of white rice and a few bland pieces of chicken, is dull by comparison. The Kobe hot rock features a meager portion of the prized beef, whiskered with thin veins of lush fat that’s all too easy to destroy with an extra split second on the sizzling rock. The accompanying soy-based dipping sauce all but obliterates the pricy meat’s flavor.
Attempts to bring a “global” sensibility to essentially Asian dishes — like the shrimp, chicken and vegetable tempura served with an off-putting cheese fondue — make the clearly skilled kitchen seem like it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Azie would do well to embrace its Morimoto pedigree and offer more sushi options — and include sashimi, which is conspicuously absent.