When Pabu closed last summer after a short but successful stint in the Four Seasons Baltimore, there was much consternation among the city's biggest food lovers.
Its departure left a hole in the local food scene, but some minds were eased with the announcement that the space would be filled by another Japanese restaurant, this one owned by the Atlas Restaurant Group, operators of Harbor East's Ouzo Bay.
Just a month after the opening of the new restaurant, Azumi, it's clear that the big shoes left by Pabu have been filled.
Despite the focus on Japanese cuisine, Azumi is not Pabu 2.0. The new restaurant is more upscale than its small-plates predecessor, with a focus on luxe dishes and conspicuously high-end ingredients. The Patrick Sutton-designed space is stylish but comfortable, with low lights, deep booths and glossy bamboo tables. Ornate sake bottles alternate with rustic pottery on shelves around the room, a mix of high and low that is sophisticated but not overly formal.
Even without the benefit of a gorgeous space, Azumi's food would sparkle. Executive chef Eiji Takase, a Tokyo native, has a pedigree that includes Japanese restaurants in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas. Considering the skill and creativity he brings to his dishes, we all should hope he makes Baltimore his home.
Serious diners might consider the Azumi tasting menu, a selection of the restaurant's best dishes that changes frequently. At $120, it is an extravagant commitment. But with four showstopping courses, plus dessert, it does not feel overpriced.
During our visit, the tasting menu started with a rich and fatty pile of bluefin toro tartare sprinkled with caviar and served with paper-thin yucca chips. The next course, a gargantuan king crab leg, had been swabbed with spicy butter before grilling.
Just when we thought the decadence had peaked, out came the big guns: a cut of Wagyu short rib topped with a square of foie gras and paired with a slab of daikon radish.
Following the short rib, and taking the intensity down a notch, were seven pieces of nigiri (raw fish served over rice), each a different fish. Much of Azumi's fish is flown directly from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. This is the good stuff; the simply presented fish was spectacular.
Dishes not included on the tasting menu were just as impressive. Slices of grilled octopus tossed with cherry tomatoes and scallions were packed with flavor and surprisingly approachable.
A lovely roll of salmon, mango, tomato and cilantro, served with a thick, habanero-spiked sauce, proved that skilled chefs can use the uber-hot pepper without blasting anyone's taste buds.
An umami bomb of an entree, the black cod in sweet miso sauce was a silky, textural wonder. Accessorized with dashi broth and an adorable, sweet yamamomo berry, the dish was fabulously satisfying.
Picking a favorite dish seems impossible, but the Sawagani crab appetizer is sure to be on a lot of people's short lists for favorite new food of 2015. The miniature freshwater crabs are flash fried, seasoned with salt and lime, and eaten whole. Despite a couple of sharp pokes in the lip, they were a lot of fun, and the combination of crispy texture and sweet crab was addictive.
Azumi's cocktail program is smart, with signature drinks that are trendy and well-balanced. Our favorites were the Jinja Satsuma, a light drink made with the Japanese citrus fruit satsuma, and the Shibui, a likable take on the Old-Fashioned, made with Japanese whiskey.
Even if you think you don't like sake, Azumi might convince you otherwise. Tiffany Dawn Soto, a Pabu alum and a master sake sommelier, gave us a two-minute lesson that provided a wealth of knowledge about the rice wine. Thanks to that, and her thoughtful pairing recommendations, we walked away with a newfound appreciation for sake's subtler charms. (Soto is in the midst of a harassment and discrimination lawsuit against the Four Seasons operators and works for Azumi as a "consulting" beverage director.)
Like Soto, our waiter proved to be a font of insight and enthusiasm. The timing of food and drinks was, for the most part, spot on. The only glitch, and it was a minor one, was a delayed cup of coffee. But even that was quickly smoothed over with an apology.
Azumi's desserts are created by Akis Anagnostou, formerly the pastry chef at Ouzo Bay, where he earned a following for his delicate sugar sculptures (Anagnostou now handles desserts for Atlas Restaurant Group as a whole). He works the same magic at Azumi, making beautiful desserts that also taste delicious, including a citrus-y cake flavored with yuzu that ended our meal on a bright, light note.
Baltimore's food cognoscenti might still be mourning the departure of Pabu. But with the opening of Azumi, they've got something major to celebrate.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Harbor East