When you walk into Azumi (725 Aliceanna St.,  220-0477, azumirestaurant.com), one of the first things you see is a starkly lit row of orange Japanese kanji characters above the bar that roughly translates to “In order to catch a tiger’s cub, you must first enter its den”—whose English equivalent would be “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” And if the décor, service, and food we had is any indication, Azumi has definitely entered the den in bold fashion, but some missteps leave it just short of grasping the cub by its fur.
The Atlas Restaurant Group's latest restaurant (they also own Ouzo Bay) continues with the Japanese concept of the beloved Pabu, whose space in the Four Seasons it took over, but cranked up the volume on its menu and design.
Azumi's master sake sommelier Tiffany Dawn Soto is helping eradicate the misconception that sake is best served hot and dropped into a glass of Sapporo. We ordered a wonderfully floral bottle of sake, Narutotai Junmai Ginjo Nama Genshu ($77 for a 720-mL bottle), from our helpful and attentive server before digging into the menu.
If you're feeling bold, there's a $120/person omakase (chef's choice) tasting menu that includes four courses and dessert and changes according to availability, or, if that's too rich for your blood, there's also sushi, small hot and cold plates, a handful of entrees, and a special niku (steaks) section featuring cuts of Japan's notoriously extravagant Wagyu beef. We started with the tasting menu and added in dishes we couldn't resist, which turned out to be a good way to sample a bit of everything.
The bluefin toro tartare ($29 a la carte) was the first course from the omakase and it was—as we quickly realized was the norm at Azumi—gorgeous. In a clear triangular glass, a sphere of bright pink tuna sat adorned with jet-black hackleback caviar, paper-thin sliced radish, a tart yamamomo berry, and a side of sliced yucca "chips" we almost mistook for bonito flakes. Unfortunately the flavor didn't hold up to the presentation. We were put off by a distinct fishiness (in a bad way), and although the addition of the accompanying nikiri sauce helped, we still questioned the freshness of the bluefin.
Thankfully, the second course of the tasting menu had us audibly laughing with delight at the sight of it. A massive king crab leg ($28 a la carte) longer than a grown man's forearm was delivered with the top half of the shell removed, making for a sea-crucible full of tender and sweet meat that was further accentuated by the addition of melted salty soy butter and a handful of sauteed whole shishito peppers served on the side. We attacked the leg with our mini shellfish forks as if we were in a culinary version of the Hunger Games.
Another dish that delivered was the agedashi tofu ($9). A delicious umami bomb in a bowl, the tofu came in the form of lightly fried cubes bobbing in a dark broth that was delicate in its preparation yet bold in flavor. It reminded us of a comfort that's usually reserved for a mother's chicken soup, and we secretly plotted to ransack the walk-in fridge and make a run for it.
An entree of A5 (the highest designation of the Japanese beef) Wagyu short rib ($36 a la carte) was the third omakase course and came glazed in a dark mahogany sauce that was a nice balance of salty and sweet, with the addition of pink peppercorns adding the occasional pop to the lavish protein. Served atop two addictively flavorful rounds of daikon with a side of smoky broccoli rabe and a bright orange kabocha mash (Asian winter squash), the short rib was fall-off-the-bone-tender, with decadent striations of fat layered throughout—Wagyu's hallmark characteristic. It would have been a sure winner had it not been delivered with the kabocha mash so dry that it was unappetizingly crusted over.
The u10 (meaning extra colossal) grilled prawns ($19), on the other hand, were an all-around buzz kill. Three overcooked, headless shrimp were served skewered over a lonely slice of grilled mushroom and lemon, making for a chewy disappointment.
But the most surprising letdown came from the most prominent section of the menu, the sushi. Marketed as being (mostly) flown in from Tokyo's famous Tsukiji Fish Market, our fourth omakase course was a plate of five pieces of nigiri ($4 -$14/piece). Having visited Tsukiji Market, where I enjoyed a mind-blowing sushi breakfast, I was excited but then equally let down when Azumi's version failed to deliver as advertised.
Though expertly sliced, the fish was incredibly dry, taking on an oddly glutinous consistency from the rice upon which it laid. And while some explanation may be derived from their choice to serve it last—a major oversight, considering sushi's delicately nuanced flavor—we feel confident that our palates weren't the problem.
That made it all the more frustrating when, on a return visit, we doubled down on the nigiri and had, by far, one of the best sushi experiences in the city. Moist, fresh, and, in the case of the tuna belly (ch¿toro), a slice of melt-in-your-mouth heaven, the fish was so good we quickly ordered more. It was a confusing experience that had us really hoping the first visit was the anomaly and not the latter, because that fish was damn good.
Something that wasn't confusing were the desserts. Sophisticated, sweet works of art were presented in the form of a wonderfully light but exotic-flavored vanilla and lychee custard called the kanten ($10) and the omakase azumi ($12), a trio of handmade mochi (rice cakes) intricately wrapped around matcha green tea, mango, and yuzu ice cream that became an instant favorite.
Which is something that we couldn't exactly say about Azumi as a whole. Because as we sat at the bar sipping a Hibiki 12 from its impressive list of Japanese whiskeys, we couldn't help but notice the orange glow of the Japanese proverb above, reminding us that if it's the tiger cub Azumi wants, it must get up from its stumbles and grab it. We hope it does, because it has show-stopper potential.