Tasting the Riviera Maya @ Azul

Friday, Jul 24, 2009  |  Updated 9:45 AM EDT
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Tasting the Riviera Maya @ Azul

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The Mandarin Oriental is hosting guest chef Ignacio Granda Del Gallego from their Riviera Maya resort this week for a series of special menu tastings in which he's collaborating with Azul chef Clay Conley and Cafe Sambal's Eduardo Quintana. We were invited to check out the six-course dinner menu and it was interesting to see how the two chefs worked together to create a menu where the guest chef was able to strut his stuff while the home team - chef Conley - chimed in with some witty dishes that complimented the Mexican fiesta.

It was my first time at Azul and I was blown away by how gorgeous the place is. The Mandarin is unique because it's sort of set back from downtown on Brickell Key and it feels like it's on its own island. When you walk in the first thing you see is the sparkling glass-encased open kitchen where the chefs are clanging, steaming, and sauteing up a storm, which always gets me in the mood for a food-nanza. The dining room is a multi-level affair with marble surfaces, floor-to-ceiling views of the bay and plush seats. And they seem to be doing well in this economy despite the pricey menu and the off-the-beaten path location. The dining room was buzzing with well-dressed Latins and a table of ten celebrating a birthday right next to us. Steady business like that is probably due to good service and food, of which we had plenty. Here's the menu and my hastily-composed observations.

Hamachi Ceviche, Chilies, Lime, Camote, Green Goddess, Crispy Yucca Salad
2005 Lackner-Tinnacher “Ried Gamitz,” Gelber Muskateller, Styria, Austria
AZUL Chef Clay Conley

Pork Pibil Gyozas, Habanero Chutney & Black Bean
2007 Vincent Girardin, Chardonnay, St. Véran, Burgundy, France
Guest Chef Ignacio Granda Del Gallego

Lobster A La Talla, Poblano Puree, Plantain & Adobo
2007 Brandborg, Pinot Noir, Umpqua Valley, Oregon
Guest Chef Ignacio Granda Del Gallego

Porcini Crusted Lamb Loin, Miso-Quince Compote, Bok Choy & Almonds
2002 Spadafora “Schietto,” Syrah, Sicily, Italy
Guest Chef Ignacio Granda Del Gallego

Young Mimolette, Masa Harina, Tomato & Chili Soup
2000 Abtei Muri, Pinot Bianco, Südtirol-Alto Adige, Italy
AZUL Chef Clay Conley

Bing Cherry Pearls, White Chocolate Pistachio Ice Cream, Valrhona Chocolate Sponge
2005 Castaño, Monastrell, Yecla, Spain
AZUL Pastry Chef Anthony Miller

So as you can see the guest chef dominates the middle three courses with chef Conley bookending the meal with a tiradito first course (above) and a fifth "chese" course of young mimolette, a yellow cheese similar to cheddar that he coaxed into a high-end quesadilla, a playful nod at the Mexican theme.
The tiradito was an explosion of flavors - very assertive lime which is fine by me, and a Green Godess dressing which the chef said is made of cilantro, mint, dijon mustard and olive oil. The fried yuca lent satisfying crunch to the dish.
Favorite dish of the night was the porcini-crusted lamb loin. A petite portion but immensely flavorful, the meat was cooked to just medium and almost velvety in texture. The miso-quince paste lent a delicious dimension to the dish, deftly balancing the nuttiness of the miso with the caramel sweetness of the fruit. A ridiculously elegant dipping sauce.
Favorite wine was the Brandborg Pinot Noir, a nice accompaniment to the grilled lobster and its not-too-spicy poblano puree (actually I would have prefferred some more fire to the dish, though the lobster was incredibly fresh).
Portions weren't too big so when dessert came around I wasn't feeling too stuffed (but gluttonous, yes, definitely feeling gluttonous at that point). Nonetheless was able to polish off the Valrhona chocolate cake which came with pistachio dust instead of ice cream and a porcelain spoon containing a wiggly cherry "pearl," sort of concentrated cherry juice encased in a thin cherry skin.
The tasting menu is priced at $95, or $165 with the wine pairings. Yes, it's pricey but then again, it saves you a trip to Mexico...

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