Azur Restaurant and Bar, and what a treat it was!
Lexington is a city I’ve passed countless times traveling between Cincinnati and Knoxville without having a clue what is going on there culinarily or otherwise. Fortunately, that is changing. When I went to the Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show there in October, I ate at a couple of area restaurants, sampled the wares of some local food purveyors, and was especially intrigued by one demo at the food show, by Azur Chef Jeremy Ashby. I knew right away I wanted to taste his food, and an excellent opportunity presented itself when I read on Azur’s facebook page that he would be doing a cooking class and five-course tasting menu rolled into one for $60.
Among the things at the Incredible Food Show that impressed me about this Kentucky native (he attended Johnson + Wales in Charleston, SC, after UK and worked with Norman Van Aken in Miami prior to returning to the Bluegrass State) are Chef Ashby’s commitment to high-quality, often (although not exclusively) locally sourced ingredients and his inventive preparations. He also has a casual demeanor about him and wants his food to be accessible and fun, which I sensed at the Food Show and saw even more in evidence that Wednesday night. Many long-time friends of the restaurant were in attendance for this inaugural cooking class. But the chef and his staff made me feel welcome and comfortable as a newcomer too. So comfortable, in fact, that – with no disrespect, Chef – I’m going to refer to you as Jeremy in the rest of this post :)
Before the evening’s proceedings got underway, I asked Jeremy if he’d be cool with me taking pictures, explaining up front that I’m a food blogger. He assured me I was welcome to, and even brought some of his demo plates to my table so I could photograph them.
You can see the demo plate at the top of this post, on a slab of Himalayan sea salt. Here’s my diner's plate.
Stuarto’s Olive Oil Company (owner Stuart Utgaard and his products would be featured later in the evening as well). And for temperature and texture contrast, the yellow bit in the middle is sweet corn ice cream, not only whimsical but utterly delicious!
Jeremy had promised a meal that would not resemble Thanksgiving, although he was definitely playing with fall flavors. For his second course, he took inspiration not only from autumn but also from a dish that once failed spectacularly on Top Chef, Butterscotch Scallops.* The menu described Jeremy’s version as “wild mushroom and scallop wellington, fuji apple, butterscotch, rosemary smoke, country ham.”
Demo-ing the dish before us, Jeremy seasoned a day-boat scallop with Stuarto’s Spanish smoked rosemary salt and seared it over high heat. Then he pan-roasted an oyster mushroom whole, which he chopped into duxelles and placed in the bottom of a puff pastry pouch and topped with the scallop to create the Wellington, which would be baked in the oven.
Next Jeremy caramelized the fuji apples with some country ham (from much-lauded Benton’s in Tennessee). For the “butterscotch” (which is just butter and brown sugar, he reminded), he added some butter to the pan drippings (which froths when added to oil and helps deglaze the savory browned ham bits), a smidge of brown sugar, and a touch of chicken stock to create a light apple pan sauce that reminded me more of the woods than of dessert.
For the third course, Jeremy went old school with pasta carbonara, a dish he introduced as so often being made badly in restaurants that he wanted us to taste an authentic version. I’m not sure I’ve ever had it at a restaurant, although this “bacon and eggs with pasta and pepper” dish is one I’ve made many times at home, doing what I thought was a reasonable job of following Marcella Hazan’s recipe. I now know better.
The demo for this course spotlighted another of Jeremy’s local culinary friends, Lesme of Lexington Pasta Company, who made fresh tagliatelle. This two-year-old company supplies restaurants throughout Kentucky and has a retail spot that offers pasta-making classes where one can also sample wine and local cheeses.
Interspersed with Lesme’s demo, Jeremy rendered some guanciale (a bacon of sorts made from pig’s cheek, which he said is even more savory than pork belly) and added some razor-thin slices of garlic. The fresh pasta tossed with the pork, garlic, a bit of eggs, and some parmesan produced a dish that was one of the most eye-opening of the evening. As delicious as the guanciale was, the star by far was the fresh tagliatelle. Tasting it was a lightbulb moment when I felt like I finally “got” why people make a fuss about fresh pasta. A trip to Italy may not be in my near future, but a pasta-making class at Lexington Pasta Co. definitely is on my list for a future field trip to the Bluegrass State.
here), I definitely want to check out the Stuarto’s shop in person.
Next up: Course 4, “horseradish crusted beef short rib, lemongrass braised endive, celery root, house-made ricotta, and pea shoots.”
An advantage of cooking vegetables like the baby candy-striped beets prepared sous-vide for the first course, he said, is that the vacuum seals in the vegetable’s innate flavors, as opposed to boiling, where flavor and nutrients dissipate in the water. (I’m still not sure the taste is superior to the flavor concentration you can get by roasting vegetables . . . but then sous-vide may work better for cooking veggies whole as he did with the beets, rather than sliced as I usually do when roasting. And it wouldn’t set off the smoke alarms in my house.)
For this course, Jeremy prepared the short ribs sous-vide, emphasizing that it allows even edge-to-edge cooking and that the fat in the short ribs would be evenly distributed in the meat as a result. Although I enjoyed the dish as a whole, maybe I’m just accustomed to a little more fatty gusto when I indulge in short ribs. My note-taking kind of fell off in the midst of the fun and as I was into my fourth taste of the accompanying wine pairings ($35 for 5 pours – all excellent and well matched to the evening’s dishes), but I think the endive (it looks kind of like a tongue in my photo of the demo plate below) was prepared sous-vide as well. Although the bitter taste of fresh endive definitely mellowed during its sous-vide bath, it was a little hard to cut.
Finally, dessert. Jeremy told the assembled group that Azur doesn’t have a pastry chef, so he just likes to play with flavors and textures. And play he did, creating this plate of “pomegranate panna cotta, flexible chocolate, mint emulsion, caramel powder, cinnamon granola soil, chocolate truffle.”
Chef Jeremy was kind enough to stop by my table, chat a bit, and answer my questions at several points during the evening. When I commended him on his presentation style, he thanked me and said he tries to keep things casual during his demos, but was also finding it a little hard to be out front rather than in his usual spot in the kitchen as the dishes went out. At the end of the evening, he invited his young kitchen staff into the dining room to introduce and thank them, and the diners erupted in applause for the fine meal we had treated us to.
Azur – which Jeremy quipped at the Incredible Food Show stands for come “as you are” – has a loyal following in Lexington. Like the chef himself, the restaurant has a laid-back vibe to it, even as the kitchen is putting out innovative, high-end dishes. The combination is a great recipe for accessible adventure. Although I would happily dine at Azur again at any opportunity, the tasting-menu-plus-cooking-class format (Jeremy said he plans to offer more of these either monthly or every other month) was a great introduction to not only the quality of Azur’s food but also where it’s coming from – both the carefully sourced ingredients themselves and the mind that conceives of how to make them taste good, assemble them in unique combinations on a plate, and delight his diners. Whether he’s exploring modernist techniques or harkening back to artisanal preparations, Jeremy Ashby is a chef with boundless culinary curiosity and an underlying generosity of spirit. I loved the magic carpet ride of my first evening at Azur, and I can't wait to be swept away again.
*Dale Talde’s Butterscotch Scallops got him eliminated on Season 4, although when challenged to redo the dish during the All-Stars season, Talde redeemed himself with a version that guest judge Anthony Bourdain said Talde successfully managed to “un-f--k up” the dish. Jamie Lauren in the Top Chef scallop arena, not so much.