July 29, 2014

Appetite

AZN Spells Delicious

We began our adventure at the new AZN Azian Cuizine in the Naples Mercato armed with a good piece of intel from a trusted friend.

“Be sure to order the dumplings,” she said. “They’re out of this world.”

From the moment we entered the open, modern space of the restaurant, where servers sailed by carrying tantalizing platters of sushi, steaming entrées and brightly colored drinks, we guessed that we would be in very good hands: Hsu hands, to be exact. AZN is the latest venture for Atlanta restaurateurs Raymond and Anna Hsu, of Hsu’s Gourmet, Pacific Rim and Silk fame.

The menu showcases flavors from China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and beyond, with dumplings, lettuce wraps, noodle and rice dishes, seafood, meat and poultry entrées, salads, “Small Bites,” burgers, sandwiches and vegetarian options. “House Specialties” are highlighted in every category, and AZN also features a full sushi bar. Server Chris DeGenova endeared himself to me immediately by urging us to try the sushi and the mixed drinks.

“I would like nothing better than to sample both, but my doctor would kill me,” I said, gesturing toward my midsection. Chris eyed me with bewilderment, so I elaborated. “I’m almost eight months pregnant.”

“Really?” he said. “But you’re so tiny.” To be honest, he couldn’t see my ankles, which have begun to swell to Fred Flintstone proportions, but I was thoroughly delighted all the same.

“Honey,” I stage-whispered to Tom, “please be sure that this young man gets an enormous tip.”

“Yes, dear,” Tom said with a laugh. Eight months of life with a pregnant lady have taught him nothing if not the vital importance of those two simple words. They’ve also taught him the pleasures of drinking for two: He ordered himself a wild berry mojito ($8), which he later pronounced “potent and delicious.”

“The good news,” I informed Chris, “is that I can eat everything else on this menu. In fact, I intend
to do just that.”

“She’s kidding,” Tom said. “But not by much. We’re going to order an obscene amount of food. Please keep it coming without worrying about spacing each dish out in a leisurely way. We have to eat fast before she goes into labor.”

“You got it!” Chris replied.

Our AZN banquet began with the combination dumpling platter ($9), which Chris recommended we order grilled (as opposed to steamed). The succulent homemade pork, shrimp and vegetable dumplings were steamed first and then lightly grilled for a slightly embossed exterior. An array of house dipping sauces enhanced their flavors.

Although it isn’t what we would call an Asian dish, we couldn’t resist the looks of the house specialty soup: lobster bisque. With a half lobster tail, the bisque runs $13 a bowl; without a tail, it goes for $8. AZN makes the bisque its own by sautéing the lobster tail in tempura batter and drizzling truffle oil on the whole McCoy. Tom and I were very glad we had ordered two bowls so there was no need to joust over this delicacy. AZN is too lovely a restaurant—complete with sail-like lighting fixtures, wall fountains, modern wood paneling and indoor and outdoor seating—for an open brawl.

You can tell a lot about a restaurant by how it handles the simplest, most traditional of fare. In the case of Asian restaurants, a good yardstick is the pad Thai. AZN passed the pad Thai contest with flying bean sprouts. Its Pad Thai Noodle ($11)—“flat rice noodles tossed with egg, chicken and shrimp in a fish tamarind sauce, served with fresh bean sprouts and crushed peanuts”—provided just the right blend of fresh ingredients and tangy notes. Tom was equally pleased with another “Noodles and Rice” offering: the Yang Chow Fried Rice ($10), a combination fried rice dish with shrimp, chicken and beef.

We had a mild tussle over just
how spicy we should order the northern Chinese dish called General Tzu’s Chicken ($13), which features chicken and peppers in a sweet garlic chili sauce. Tom generally likes his cuisine spicy enough to melt steel, while I tend to shy away from most five-alarm-fire recipes. I shamelessly played the pregnancy card yet again, and Chris brought us the milder version of the dish. We both pronounced it excellent … and then found that we were running out of steam.

“You can’t leave without trying our caramel apple dessert,” Chris told us. “It’s a homemade dish that starts with a large Fuji apple, homemade caramel sauce and Belgian chocolate, and gets topped off with
a light coating of nuts.”

“Sold,” I said. “There’s no way I’m going home without trying that.” It might be our undoing, but it was worth the risk.

“Great!” he said, and ran off to make it so. A few minutes later, as we munched on slices of one of the best desserts we’ve tasted in Southwest Florida, we toasted him for his sage advice. The caramel apple ($8.50) is worth the accolades.

Manager Scott Selznick, an L.A. native with some Hollywood experience but alas, no ties to David O., stopped by as we were in the throes of caramel apple ecstasy.

“I would eat one of these every day if not for the calories,” I told him between bites.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’ve taken the calories out for you.”

If that were true, the calories would be the only thing missing from AZN Azian Cuizine.

“Please come back when you’re able to try the sushi,” Scott urged us. “On Super Sushi weekends, every Saturday and Sunday from 3–6 p.m., customers get 50 percent off everything from the sushi bar.”

AZN seems to specialize in delicious food offered up at recession-friendly prices. Despite our gluttony, our tab for dinner for two didn’t exceed $100. Considering that we got fresh, artfully prepared cuisine, great service and lovely ambiance, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. We can’t wait to return to this new jewel in Mercato so that AZN can repeat the feat.  

AZN Azian Cuizine, 9118 Strada Place, Naples; (239) 593-8818, http://aznrestaurant.com. Open weekdays
11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., weekends 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Happy hour 3–6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Super Sushi Weekends Saturday and Sunday 3–6 p.m. Reservations suggested. Valet and free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

 

Guilty Pleasures at Waterside

After working up an appetite considering various bargains at the Miromar Outlets in Estero, we stopped in at the mall’s newest culinary offering: the Waterside Seafood & Grille Co. We passed an adorable little girl in a sundress splashing in the restaurant piazza’s fountain, and caught a water-skier as he sent up an enormous plume of spray rounding a corner on the lake that borders the piazza. Waterside, indeed!

Waterside has a great many outdoor tables on the piazza, but we decided to take in the sights from the air-conditioned comfort of an indoor booth. The water motif carries through in Waterside’s casual, nautical décor, and in its simple yet satisfying offerings, which include burgers, pasta dishes and salads along with the usual seafood fare. We began with the New England clam chowder ($3.95 cup/$5.95 bowl), the fried calamari ($8.95) and the coconut shrimp ($9.95). The chowder did not live up to the expectations of a bona fide Bostonian (Tom) and someone who passed six years of graduate school in that fair city (yours truly), but the two fried appetizers were excellent. Whoever figured out that fried shrimp, coconut shavings and orange marmalade dipping sauce made a winning combination deserves big kudos as far as we’re concerned.

Tom ordered the fresh grouper platter ($17.95), while I ordered the lobster roll ($17.95) in a fit of nostalgia for the North. Given the choice of having his fish blackened, grilled or fried, he took the excellent advice of server Kelly: grilled. The grouper arrived with crisp, steamed veggies and mashed potatoes. Inspired by a menu that includes a section of fried fish titled “All in a Basket,” I had my lobster roll with French fries, cole slaw and a pickle. I was slightly disappointed to find chopped red onion embedded within the roll, but the Maine lobster meat was very tasty, and it wasn’t swimming in mayonnaise, as can often happen. The fries were a crispy, guilty pleasure of the first order.

Speaking of guilty pleasures, we concluded our meal with a taste of Waterside’s Key Lime Pie ($4.95), a dessert as refreshing as our lake vista. The next time you find yourself in need of culinary replenishment after a day at the Miromar Outlets, check out Waterside’s offerings. 

Waterside Seafood & Grille Co., 10801 Corkscrew Road, Estero; (239)
390-9595. Open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reservations suggested. Free parking. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
 

For more local restaurant news, read Gulfshore Life’s bimonthly blog “Hot Dish.”

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