Predicting a Fabulous Meal: Nothing Random About AZ

A fortune must have been sunk into this place, which used to be a model hangout called Flowers. But as models go, they went. Now the first floor has been turned into a dark, sexy, Asian-style lounge, very Suzie Wong with sofas, poufs, red lights and pretty hostesses in orange silk cheongsams. A bright blue band curves around the ceiling and by the entrance a slate waterfall trickles down (all the way from the top floor of the building) into a pond filled with Koi. Have the models come back? In this light at least, the people having cocktails looked great.

When our table was ready, a host led us into a glass elevator that whisked us up past the room on the second floor that’s kept for private parties, to the dining room, which is on the roof. It’s impressive, designed to look like an Asian garden, done up in grays, dark browns and blues, with a retractable glass ceiling that was closed the night I was there because it was pouring rain. The chandeliers are shaped like Art Nouveau flower buds, the bare brick walls hung with mirrors in curved, slanted frames and raw silk curtains. The orchids alone, placed along the walls, probably cost 40 bucks apiece.

The room is pretty, but it’s odd, even a little sinister, like the setting for a David Lynch movie. Perhaps it’s the plethora of shaved heads–every other waiter in this restaurant (and there are almost as many as there are customers) seems to be sporting one. The busboys are dressed in navy blue, making them look like agents of some international crime ring. Any moment you expect the glass elevator doors to swoosh open and the Boss to step out, in dark glasses.

Enormous attention has been paid to every detail at AZ (pronounced ay-zee), from the large, heavy knives and forks and the rust-colored paper placemats covered with Japanese symbols, to the soft leather menu covers and the beautiful colored glass candleholders that look like something dreamed up by artisans working for William Morris in the 1890′s. The Fiji sparkling water is even served in a square plastic bottle placed inside a silver holder.

Now, if you wanted to be really sure to get the right bottle of wine, could you do any better than to consult the I Ching ? Just look what it did for the music of John Cage. There are more than 500 bottles on the list (which is excellent and reasonably priced) and their properties are earnestly described with the trigrams of the I Ching , an ancient Chinese system of divination by flipping coins or dividing sticks. “The Symbol of Earth–peace, relaxation, openness” gets you a nice bottle of rosé. “The Symbol of Mist–wines of sensuality,” what else? A pinot noir. On this stormy night, we chose “The Symbol of the Wind–wines of subtlety” and came up with a Chilean sauvignon blanc that was only $25. It was also very good.

I don’t know whether the chef, Patricia Yeo, tosses the coins and consults the I Ching before she puts on her apron, but there is certainly no feeling of randomness about her food. Ms. Yeo, who has a master’s degree in biochemistry from Princeton University, has worked at Mesa Grill and Bolo in New York and at China Moon and Hawthorne Lane in California. Her cooking, which I guess you’d call Pacific Rim, is fascinating, the work of someone who has thought through every aspect of each dish, starting with the elegant plate it comes on, which varies in size, shape and color depending on what it contains. Dinner is a prix fixe $52 per person, an incredibly good value for food of this caliber (and it came out of the kitchen astonishingly fast, too).

“Hallelujah! No amuse-geules!” I thought, when we were offered three kinds of breads instead–warm nan sprinkled with salt, baguette and rosemary matzoh, served with dips that change each day: parsley pesto, spicy purees of lentils or eggplant, corn relish, chopped marinated fruit, bananas and pineapple.

The menu offers a choice of around 10 first and second courses, and they all sound so intriguing it’s hard to choose. You can begin with yellowtail jack served three ways: soy-seared tartare and sashimi; with raw apple and roe; or with juicy grilled Gulf prawns with gossamer soybean wontons and intensely flavored tomato broth. The egg drop soup is excellent, laced with peekytoe crab and asparagus in a complex broth and garnished with asparagus tempura. Delicate softshell crab tempura was served with avocado and herb hand rolls; silken slices of salmon cured in lemongrass came with puffy lentil and rice blini topped with crème fraîche and osetra caviar. The foie gras, cured in Szechuan pepper (barely discernible), was indeed great, as the waiter promised, paired with a sour cherry vinaigrette and “embryo” arugula. My favorite, though, was a dish that appealed to me the least when I read it on the menu: quail with pineapple. The combination of juicy roasted pineapple and the quail, tender and moist under its sticky ginger-lacquered glaze, was extraordinary.

Ms. Yeo is particularly skilled with fish. Salmon, which often makes me yawn, was baked in parchment but served rare and had an amazing texture (like sushi with another dimension, as my companion described it). Also flawless was the pristine-fresh cod encased in a crunchy porcini crust, with a creamy confit of celery and artichokes, as was the halibut, its snowy chunks perked up with a soy ginger sauce and Chinese sausage. I wasn’t totally convinced by Ms. Yeo’s version of surf ‘n’ turf, a lovely piece of rare coriander-crusted tuna served with a rich, warm oxtail salad. I liked the two dishes separately but I’m not sure they marry well.

Chicken smoked in lapsang souchong was perfect, however, and brilliantly matched with scallion pancakes and fig compote. Good beefy New York steak, cooked rare and sliced over broccoli rabe, came with a baked potato I’ll never forget. It was in a crunchy skin topped with shavings of summer truffles you could smell across the table.

The least interesting of the meat dishes, surprisingly, was the lamb: a grilled chop, a roasted leg with a lamb crépinette with a Thai green curry sauce that was, if anything, too subtle. Duck schnitzel was strange but interesting, in a crust with hazelnut brown butter topped with a salad of golden beets (a riff on the Italian veal milanese).

Pastry chef Heather Miller has produced desserts as inventive and delicious as the rest of the food. Asian desserts are not always to my taste, so I didn’t anticipate that the two outstanding ones would be the most Asian: a lovely sharp, lemon ginger ice with rum-soaked pineapple and a glorious plum wine broth with litchi sorbet. I could go on about the delicate passion fruit panna cotta, the rhubarb upside-down cake and the dark, rich, warm chocolate mousse cake, but if I do, the models won’t ever come back. As for me, I’d like to eat here again tomorrow and the next day and to hell with that size 4 dress.

Peasant Update

A couple of weeks ago, in a review of a Nolita restaurant called Peasant, I mentioned a family joke, “Throw another peasant on the fire!” but I couldn’t remember its origin. A note from The Observer theater critic John Heilpern, who also happens to be English, brought it back. “One day, the Duke of Northumberland called out: ‘Throw another pheasant on the fire!’ Unfortunately, his butler was slightly deaf … Not that it was the done thing to throw peasants on the fire, at least in my family. Hence the expression: ‘Shoot the pheasant, never the peasant.’”

AZ

* * *

21 West 17th Street

691-8888

Dress: Chic

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Extensive, well-chosen and reasonably priced

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Lunch prix fixe $20, dinner three-course prix fixe $52

Dinner: Sunday to Wednesday 5:30 p.m. To 11 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor