Wednesday, November 11, 2009

AZN Brings Colorful Tasty Asian Cuisines to Naples' Mercato

“I go there for the beautiful décor and the bold food. It’s unlike any other Asian spot we’ve tried,” one woman explained, “prices are good, and we love the Mercato location.” I second that, with my second AZN visit. Comparing the prior to the current revamped menu, AZN has enhanced their very good selections, adding bold new dishes, creative drinks, and a thoughtful variety of nicely priced wines.

Each visit highlighted attentive service, and very good quality foods properly cooked and seasoned. Proprietors Raymond and Anna Hsu have three different style Asian restaurants in Atlanta-this is their first venture away. AZN would franchise well. One guest preferred this over PF Chang’s, saying "AZN is far tastier, less noisy and crowded.”

The décor is dramatically attractive, innovative and warm, with subdued night time lighting. It's strikingly exotic, asymmetric in shapes textures and hues. The designer skillfully unites the melange of disparate angles, curves and colors. The walls are autumnal golds and yellows; booths sport rich reds, and central tables and chairs are brown. Rounded white sail cloths uniquely drape part of the high black ceiling. The front windows widely open, letting in fresh air. The bar area (below) fills fast. AZN attracts a mixed age weekday crowd, and a younger later-night weekend set. We’re not in Kansas anymore. Eye opening AZN dismisses dated “Chinese” foods and tacky décor.

Server Diana has a 1000 watt personality and down to earth charm. Scott is attentive and friendly. Both know the menu’s dishes and made excellent suggestions after hearing my guests’ preferences. We’ll return to their tables! This review combines both dining experiences.

We started with the beautiful appetizer, Ahi Poke Hawaiian, ($9) cupped in a sensual wrap of red cabbage, with diced fresh raw tuna, pineapple and avocado, marinated in ponzu sauce, topped with seaweed salad and tobiko. Wonderful.

The AZN Crab Cake ($12) is a good sized, lightly pan seared cake with thankfully little filler around the tender, fresh shredded lump crab meat. It’s served over a Kimchi rich butter sauce. (Opened below.)There’s no Old Bay spice or other additions to detract from the delicate crab’s sweet taste.

The Beer Battered Seabass (13) has tender mouth sized bites, minimally battered, seasoned with Asian spices and accented with a rich, sweet and mildly spicy aioli sauce. “People who don’t usually eat fish” would like these savory bites.
This wonderfully light treat will put Mrs. Paul’s Frozen Fish instantly out of business.

Wicked Mussels (10) are aptly named. These naughty boys are not for weenies. If you relish an “in your face” bold taste, then step right up! The two dozen mussels’ sauce, redolent of ocean brine, is chili-spiced hot enough to be served at street stands across Asia. There’s slices of onion and over 3 grams of salt, but who’s counting. I wish there was another wedge of the crisp triangular buttered toast to soak up more broth. They’d probably bring more toast or bread, if asked. You’ll smile when you see what is done with the bonito flakes-it’s very clever!

Two sushi chefs keep busy with dozens of specialty and traditional rolls. The Firecracker (12) is aptly named, with spicy hot tuna and tempura flake, topped with crabstick, avocado, Sriracha mayo and jalapeno!Next time we’ll try the Hunan Hot and Sour Soup (5) and the AZN House Salad or the Yuzu Caesar (7). The Vietnamese Spring Rolls (6) went by, and they look good!

AZN’s good selection of nicely priced wines by the glass ranges from $6-13. Bottles start at $26, with a dozen under $35. At the higher end are Cakebread’s Chardonnay (80), BR Cohn Silver Cab (52), and a Veuve Cliquot Yellow label split for $40. The variety includes ones from California, Oregon, Chile and France.You’ll pay quite a bit more elsewhere in town! Mixed drinks are creative-the Cherry Saketini or Cucumber Cooler creations are favorites.

The Chilean Sea Bass ($26) is a perfectly cooked portion, miso and sake marinated, then grilled so the edges are crisp. Topped with a sweet glaze, it’s lusciously tender and moist. Chinese long beans and steamed white rice accompany-it’s a good portion.
Thai Basil Salmon (19) offers a good sized tender salmon portion with a cedar plank scent. It’s accented with a Thai basil butter and red curry vinaigrette topping.

What to try on a next visit? The new Black and Blue Tuna (26) gets solid reviews, with red raw tuna seaweed and sesame encrusted, served with a dramatically contrasting green Thai basil citrette/ balsamic reduction and soba noodle salad.
Korean Short Ribs (26) are the house favorite. The 12 ounces of tender beef is marinated and slow cooked Korean style, served with mashed potatoes and kimchi salad.
A man-sized appetite demands for the hand-cut 16 ounce boneless broiled Wagyu “Kobe” ribeye (42), with a wasabi bleu cheese crust, mashed potatoes, asparagus, and a port wine reduction.
Cantonese Roasted Half Duck (25) is marinated for 4 days, and baked so the skin is properly browned and crisp, with tender meat. This comes with a cucumber and ume (Japanese plum) sauce. Our neighbors were pleased with the Szechuan Peppercorn Grouper, topped with kimchi buter, with sides of black rice with shrimp, and kimchi (23), below.There’s quite a few gluten free menu items, marked with a red cross.

Dessert time? Go for theIce Cream Sandwich Trio’s (8) green tea, chocolate and vanilla (we had banana!) ice creams sandwiched between firm pastry cookies, and topped with a super rich Belgian chocolate sauce. Enough for two, it was finished before it melted.

The AZN Chocolate Caramel Fuji Apple (9) is dipped in caramel, then Belgian chocolate, then drizzled with white chocolate and chopped pecans. You can’t go wrong with either dessert. General Manager Scott Selznick visited each table, as did Anna Hsu, below, with Server Scott Christopher. Who’s the competition? Primarily the other Mercato spots and P F Chang’s. AZN can go chopstick to chopstick with P.F. Chang’s, and win. Charlie Chiang’s has a different niche, with relaxing riverside dining, unique dishes and dim sum. Sushi-Thai and Bonita Springs Paul Wong’s Pan Asian have their unique styles.

9118 Strada Place, Naples, 593-8818 Open 7 days; 11:00 am- 11:00 pm

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