I first went to AZ the week before it opened, in what seems another world and time. I loved the lounge’s slickness and the opium den feel of its crimson-lit beige drapes, low couches, and fabric-covered lanterns. Most of all I liked the Asian-inspired bar menu that boasted nigh unto perfect fried calamari and Thai beef salad atop a bed of Thai basil. They augured well for future appetizers. These were long off the menu when a newly scheduled Chelsea rendezvous returned AZ to the forefront of my mind, and I finally got to ride in the glass elevator to the upstairs dining room.
Once seated, my friend reminisced as he soaked up his obligatory preprandial cocktail, this time AZ’s version of Bermuda’s dark and stormy ginger beer and five-spice-infused rum ($10). I nibbled on the complimentary offerings of flatbreads—some pleasantly chewy, others crisply toasted, still others dusted with a sprinkling of roasted Asian spices—that arrived with a trio of dips, the avant-garde of a trend that puts an Asian twist on the ubiquitous saucer of olive oil.
Forgoing the prix fixe options as too expensive and probably too much, we selected the tempura ($15) and the fluke sashimi ($14). I was so taken by the translucent flakes of slightly unctuous fish dressed only with a light citrus oil and punctuated by the crunch of toasted garlic bits that by the time I looked up my friend had scarfed down his selection of well-fried Imperial roll, shiitake, and calamari ($15). He did have the good grace to rave about the dish’s blending of spices with a delicate hit of star anise, and praise the sweet-hot mix of the chile drizzle.
We were both disappointed when the mains didn’t continue the inventiveness of the apps. His perfectly OK duck schnitzel seemed an unnecessary conceit that gained nothing from the pounding ($34), while my spicy cumin-rubbed leg of lamb with eggplant and goat cheese risotto ($33) was memorable only from notes. The high point was a relatively inexpensive Tatachilla wine ($35) that boldly held its own against the complex spices.
No reservation and the resumption of Manhattan’s Saturday-night follies meant that the place was full next time, activating AZ’s requirement that patrons in the main room order either the $75 taster’s or $57 regular prix fixe. Relegated to the lounge area, where we hunkered down at tables never intended for prolonged dining, we forged onward. Remembering that the appetizers were the menu’s stars, and aware that the menu changes daily, I reprised the astounding fluke sashimi, trying to imprint the crunch and taste of the sizzling garlic bits on my palate so that I could attempt to duplicate them at home. It was even better the second time, each nubbin of allium a burst of flavor. My guest’s hamachi trio ($16)—sashimi, maki, and tartare—was yellowtail at its smoothest and cleanest. The three pre-wrapped pancake cornets of my five-spice moo shu ($16), an app I made do as a main, overflowed with an abundance of veggies and shreds of tender duck; that the painting of brandied hoisin decorating the plate wasn’t copious enough for dipping was only a quibble. At twice the price my friend’s cod ($33), while cooked to flaky perfection and perched atop a bed of thinly sliced squid perfumed with ginger, definitely didn’t double its sparkle.
On the other hand, the dense melted chocolate cake—heady with cacao and served with a rich ice cream flecked with large bits of candied ginger—was such a knockout that I was hard-pressed to offer my companion the last bite ($9). So forget the mains. At this place, you’ll dine well if you remember that appetizers and desserts are the A and Z that make the menu shine.