Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Dinner and Demos at Lexington’s Azur Restaurant and Patio

My holiday gift to myself Thanksgiving weekend was a Wednesday night trip to Lexington, where I attended the first Chef Series Cooking Class at 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.

I’m always fascinated to hear how chefs come up with their dishes. Once hooked up to his mike, Jeremy said he would talk a little about plating and mentioned that he tends to write menus as a series of ingredients. The first course: “octopus, shrimp and ahi tuna with Stuarto’s cilantro and roasted onion olive oil, honey ginger balsamic vinegar, baby beets, sweet corn ice cream and chile verde infused sea salt.” That may sound like a lot of ingredients for a salad course, but the clean, well-balanced flavors had me at first bite.

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.
A thin raw slice of bright red ahi tuna forms the base of each plate. The white curvilinear pieces are octopus cooked in court bouillon (which Jeremy said is good for 2-3 uses). The tail-on shrimp were cooked in the same court bouillon, then halved lengthwise. Late-season baby candy-striped beets, sitting upright, were cooked sous-vide. The salad was dressed with a carefully selected, and light, combination of infused olive oils, vinegars, and salts from local Lexington 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.
To bring full circle the autumn inspiration and the smoked rosemary salt he seasoned the scallop with, each plate featured a quickly torched sprig of fresh rosemary. Not to worry – the mini fires extinguished themselves almost immediately. But they gave off into the room just enough smoky rosemary aroma to add another fun, and complementary, element to experiencing the savory flavors in this dish.

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.
As if this dish wasn’t magnificent enough in its own right, if we chose, we could add a bit of truffle salt to cap off the dish. Stuart of Stuarto’s came around to each table with a sample, and how could I resist? The truffle taste sent the dish over the top, although there was already enough salt in this particular dish that the truffle salt made it almost too salty even for my palate. (Note to self: use these delicious salts sparingly.) Before I left that evening, I bought one of the infused olive oils Stuart brought with him, and after tasting Stuarto's espresso-infused balsamic and salt, which Jeremy was kind enough to share samples of with me (I used them in my Thanksgiving dinner 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.”
Jeremy is a proponent of cooking sous-vide, and my takeaway from the evening is that he uses it because he genuinely likes the results achieved by this technique rather for any kind of novelty factor. (If you’re not familiar with the term, sous-vide – literally, “under vacuum” – means ingredients are sealed in a plastic bag and cooked at a constant low and well-controlled temperature in a water bath, usually in an immersion circulator, although Jeremy pointed out one could use a readily available and fairly inexpensive food-saver vacuum-bag sealer, a pot of water, and a thermometer to achieve the same results.)

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.
One of my favorite components of the short rib dish was the house-made ricotta Jeremy demo’d for this course (you can see it more clearly perched atop the short rib in the pic of my diner's plate farther up). Ricotta is one of the simplest and quickest cheeses to make from scratch (as I learned from an unfortunately short-lived cheese-making group I once joined). Diners were invited to come up to the demonstration table for this one, and I was glad to see I wasn't the only curious onlooker.

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.”
Jeremy demonstrated how to make a straightforward panna cotta, making it look simple enough a home cook could tackle it. At the other end of the spectrum, he turned to some chemical compounds from his “molecular gastronomy” toolbox to turn caramel into powder and crème de menthe into a creamy emulsion (alas, I wasn’t quick enough to get the chemicals’ names written down correctly). For the pièce de résistance, he applied some liquid nitrogen to take chocolate in direction I hadn’t before tasted. A colorful, fanciful course to finish the evening with. Along with the excellent 20-year-old Port that accompanied it, it was definitely enough to keep my tastebuds – and curiosity – engaged, full though I was after the previous four courses.

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.


LaDivaCucina said...

Well written and nice photos, Eggy! $60 is an amazing price for what you got, I'm not sure how he managed to do it for that price! (how many attendees were there? and how long was the class?) I was wondering what the heck that was in the middle of the seafood and beet salad, corn ice cream! Guanciale is hard to come by, I went to several markets here and no one knew what I was talking about and STILL have yet to have a fresh pasta that has wowed me like it has you! The dishes are creative and well presented, you got a great deal and great marketing for him as well. I think you are right, Chef Jeremy will go far! Well done on all fronts, Eggy and to Chef!

Joyce Pinson said...

Sharon, so tickled you enjoyed the experience! Ashby is a giggle. Hope we can meet up at the next KY Food Bloggers Event!

Sharon Rudd said...

Joyce, thanks so much. Jeremy is a talent and a sweetheart. I would love to join in the next KY Food Bloggers event!

Diva, that sweet corn ice cream was to die for, and worked amazingly in combination with the rest of the salad ingredients! (I've also had corn ice cream from Columbus, Ohio-based Jeni's Ice Creams, which is expanding, so keep your eyes peeled in Miami.) I'm really fascinated by sweet-savory ice creams and thinking about trying my hand at some. Do you have any recommendations for an ice-cream maker?

As for the cost, I thought it was quite a bargain. A 5-course dinner of this caliber alone would be well worth $60, and the portions were not skimpy. There were demos for each course and it lasted 2 to 2 1/2 hours (I wouldn't have minded if it were paced a tad slower). Golly, I'm always terrible at estimating how many people are in a room - maybe 30-40? The restaurant wasn't full, but I think it was considerably fuller than it would otherwise have been the night before Thanksgiving, and that was part of the reason behind offering it then.

LaDivaCucina said...

Well $60 a head for 30 people is $1800! Not bad for a slow night, Very savvy!

LaDivaCucina said...

PS: I have the $40 Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker and never use it though there is a blogger buddy from here that you might want to check his archives out, he does some amazing flavors and with the same machine....

Sharon Rudd said...

Diva, I'll check out the link to Tinkering - thanks!

P.S. I have no idea what the food costs were, but the $35 wine pairing at Azur was a great add-on too. From the customer perspective, that's just $7/glass. And I'm still dreaming about that 20-year-old port!

moi said...

Wow, sounds like an incredible experience! Our local chefs would do well offering something like this.

Spaghetti carbonara is one of my all-time favorite dishes and I rarely order it in a restaurant, because rarely is it made well.

I made an exception one year when S.B. and I were vacationing in Missoula, MT. We were told there was a very venerable, owned-by-Italians-from-NYC, restaurant that had excellent food. We went. I saw carbonara on the menu, with the descriptor: "this is the real deal, just like your grandmother made it!" and so I was lulled into a false sense of hope and ordered it.

It was terrible. Curdled and dry and flavorless. I took a couple bites, and politely told the waiter to take it back, I'd order something else. I don't like to make a scene in instances like this, and will even pay for both dishes. The waiter, however, copped an attitude with me. "We are known for this dish!" blah blah blah blah, and brought the chef out, who also proceeded to give me a hard time.

That did it. I'll be polite until the cows come home, but if you push me too far, I'll clobber ya. And I went OFF on this dude, giving him a step by step blow of how you make this dish and that I could do it blindfolded and I don't know about HIS grandmother, but mine was rolling over in her grave, etc.

Meanwhile, S.B. is trying not to laugh his ass off as the entire restaurant has gone silent, with me and the chef going at each other in full-on Italian fashion. Finally, he ordered us out of the restaurant. At least we didn't have to pay.

Don't MESS with my carbonara.

Aunty Belle said...

Zounds! Great post!!

What an amazin' deal--heck, it's worth traveling to Lexington fer such a deal.

I ain't familiar wif' sous vide cookin' so this be an education--an' yore photos is stunnin'.

What I need to know is, do all them infused salts akshully taste like the herb or truffle?

I read recently that Mediterranean salt is the best thar' is on account of its high magnesium content--'course this was a nutrition POV, not a culinary one.

Off topic, but I seen an episode of Barefoot Contessa whar' I though of Our Eggy!!-- she made a grilled eggplant salat--oh mah mah mah!! Ya gotta try it--grilled eggpant wif' goat cheese an pine nuts--

Great Post, Eggy.

Sharon Rudd said...

Moi, that sounds like a supremely bad experience. I just don't get it when businesses take such an alienating tack.

Auntie, yes, those infused salts really taste of the flavor they're infused with. The truffle one was magnificent, and I'm in love with the espresso salt Chef Jeremy shared with me that I used in my Thanksgiving dinner (did you see that post?). A few grains of the espresso salt with some chocolate - mmmmmmmmm. P.S. Will have to hunt up that Ina Garten recipe - thanks for the tip!

fishy said...

We Fishy's love, love, love Lexington. We knew nothing about this fabulous city until Mermaid went to school there and never came home again.
We've been to lots of special events and most of the better restaurants.... and we've been to some Kentucky Proud food events and wow! it's always wonderful in Lexington.

This post Eggy, as always, is top drawer in every way. Come play Haiku at the Pond on Monday and blessings on your weekend.

Sharon Rudd said...

Ooooooh, Fishy! If you're ever headed to Lexington on a weekend with a little time to spare, please let me know. It would be great to meet up!

fishy said...

Haiku Monday theme is posted. Come play!