Joli Kobe's place of honor as an epicurean stopover has been solid for some years now. But what about the modern little boîte that appeared alongside the bakery after its renovation last year? That's a different and continually evolving story altogether.
The restaurant started life sharing the same name as the bakery and, by extension, tried to follow in the bakery's footsteps by offering quirky, fusion-lite fare. Noontime noblewomen and Japanese ex-pats quickly descended on lunching options such as avocado-shrimp salad and Westernized rice dishes. But the more experimental dinner, where panko-crusted fish in tomato sauce met beef carpaccio doused in sesame oil, never attracted a crowd.
And so a little restructuring was in order. The owners decided to give the restaurant its own identity and rechristened it Azure Bistro. It's an odd name given the lack of blue hues in the sleek, contemporary dining room. Not that the space isn't lovely -- I fell in love with it during my last go-around. The strange, rootlike pattern on the tile floors reminds me of the winter Pennsylvania landscape in an Andrew Wyeth painting. Light woods and green-tinted glass create calming movement in what could be a cramped space. It's a place to sit and daydream.
Chef Robert Guillou, most recently at Joël, and general manager Christian Dubugnon, who helped get Horizon in Virginia-Highland on its feet, have shifted the focus of the food to what Dubugnon describes as "American continental." It's a vague categorization that gives the new chef a lot of wiggle room. And while the menu is much more user-friendly than it was in the past, the kitchen needs to keep wiggling toward a solid POV.
The dinner starters have been split into inexpensive "small dishes" and more substantial "appetizers." That isn't unusual in restaurants these days. What is downright odd, though, is the way the dishes repeat themselves between the two categories. For instance, you can order a grilled tomato tart -- an anemic disc reminiscent of Mama Celeste frozen pizza -- with herb oil for $4.50, or get the same tomato tart gussied up with grilled portobello and an arugula salad for $6.50. There are similar options for oysters and tuna tartare.
It's an unnecessary repetition, and in every instance the appetizer portion is a more satisfying experience. The larger tuna tartare presentation is fanned with salmon carpaccio, flecked with lemon zest and topped by thin crostini spread with horseradish cream. It sounds busy, but it's a focused, texturally sumptuous affair.
Six oysters arrive on a platter with a sharp mignonette and a cold crock of ginger butter in the center. Picking up an oyster and then digging out a hard piece of butter makes for strange eating, but when the butter melts in your mouth and releases the zingy pungency of the ginger, it marries with the saline oyster surprisingly well.
The one small dish that should not be passed over is the avocado, cilantro and crab salad. It's three pristine shot glasses full of diced yum -- and a bargain, really, at $4.50. I can see Joël charging $12 for such a deft creation.
It's a foregone conclusion that dessert will be outstanding here, so I muddle through middling entrees knowing that I'll be happy before the meal's end. I can't condemn outright any of the main courses I try, but there always seems to be something awry. The French fries served with a hanger steak are bland and tepid. Generous pieces of lobster peaking out from the folds of open ravioli are undeniably appealing. But what gives with the chewy pellets of corn scattered around the plate? Something more seasonally appropriate could certainly be substituted.
The best entrees lean heavily on the French bistro tradition. Roasted chicken sits in a handsome pan with herb jus and crisp fingerling potatoes. Braised lamb chops come with tortellini stuffed with a competent porcini mushroom duxelle. But it's easy to lose interest in these after a few bites. There's no sizzle, no pizzazz -- it tastes like the work of someone bored with cooking. I suspect, though, it's actually the consequence of a kitchen in transition.
No to-go box for my entree, thanks, just bring over the dessert tray and let's have a look-see. Francois Collet's pastries hardly ever disappoint. The chocolate mousse charlotte is ethereal, as is schouss -- an unerring construction of thin sheets of cake layered with pastry cream and raspberry filling. My other current craving is sevrien, a circular concoction of orange pastry cream and angel food cake with a sliver of chocolate on the bottom. Luscious. A potent espresso made with Illy coffee cuts the sweet in just the right way.
Dinner looks to be catching on at last. On a recent weekend night, the dining room was packed. The staff was hustling and the customers lingered in the soft light that cast flattering shadows over their smiling faces. Seems the restaurant's reworking was a shrewd move. With just a bit more tweaking, Azure Bistro will be the cosmopolitan spot with an astute culinary sensibility that Sandy Springs has needed for quite some time.
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