AZN knows Asian

Many restaurants have opened their doors in south Charlotte in the last year. Thankfully, one that opened just about a year ago has raised the bar when it comes to a wonderful harmony of a refined atmosphere and delectably authentic Asian cuisine. If you’re fond of food from Japan, China, Szechuan, Korea and Thailand, you need to check out AZN.

You’ll find AZN in the Piedmont Town Center at the far end of Piedmont Row Drive off of Fairview Road, in the heart of SouthPark. The two-story establishment begins with a spacious patio for outdoor dining with its own patio bar. Once inside, you’ll find what I call a “relaxation wall” across from the large, curvy, circular bar. A convex tiled wall of water cascades down to the stones below; it’s OK to stand there for a minute and just de-stress.

The main dining room is filled with comfortable chairs and tables, a banquette to suit small or large parties and several cushy booths along the windows. You also will find a separate dining room just beyond for private parties.

And for a room with a view, consider the upstairs for dining and small private parties that overlook the main dining room and lounge area. The other area of great importance, culinarily speaking, is the sushi bar. The place has a very clean look with attention to detail. It translates to the food, as well.

Delectably premium product and artistic execution are tantamount when it comes to sushi. To paraphrase Will Rogers, I haven’t met an AZN sushi I didn’t like. Seriously, they really are exquisite works of Japanese art for the palate. The offerings are smartly marked with a legend that lets you know if it’s an AZN signature item, a spicier roll or gluten-free. The specialty sushi rolls are a meal in themselves, each created into eight large pieces. The firecracker includes spicy tuna, tempura flakes, topped with firecracker mix (krabstick, avocado and spicy mayo) and jalapeño.

The Mt. Fuji tempura is comprised of shrimp, cream cheese and avocados inside, and topped with krabstick, sesame seed, spicy mayo and eel sauce. There are a dozen options, as well as the kamikaze – spicy lobster, blue crab, scallions, cucumber and avocado topped with tuna, salmon, a dab of sriracha and eel sauce. For a traditional sushi roll, consider any one or more of the 15 offerings. One of my personal favorites is the spider roll, filled with tempura fried soft shell crab, cucumber and rice, topped with eel sauce and sesame seed. Nigiri and sashimi also are plentiful options. On the last visit, two rolls arrived atop a beautiful wooden boat – visually as appealing as the flavors.

More than a dozen offerings representing Pan Asian cuisine creates a challenge choosing which appetizers to enjoy on a given visit. Unique offerings include the Mandalay crab angels – blue crab meat blended with cream cheese and chopped shrimp in crisp and crunchy dumpling skins. Traditional starters are quite tasty, as in the Vietnamese spring rolls – fried and stuffed with ground chicken and vegetables, served with Vietnamese-style dipping sauces. Are you a fan of authentic dumplings? All of these dumplings are handmade and prepared grilled or steamed. Personally, I like them grilled. They come with pork, shrimp or vegetable or a combination of all three. You also will find soups and salads on the menu. The Shanghai-style wonton soup, not your average variety, is made with ground pork and shrimp stuffed wontons, shiitake mushrooms, snow peas and scallions in a chicken broth with sesame oil.

I am very fond of duck, provided it is truly well prepared. AZN knows what they’re doing when it comes to this delectable, yet tricky, delight. The Cantonese roasted duck is scrumptious. It’s a deboned half of duck marinated for four days. It is then roasted to perfection, creating a crispy golden skin with tender juicy meat served with cilantro, cucumber and Ume sauce. If you like a deep beef flavor profile with an Asian kick, consider the Korean beef short ribs. Ultra tender beef ribs prepared Korean-style and served with mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables. Also consider the seven flavor basil beef – tender flank steak marinated in seven Southeast Asian spices, wok tossed and served over bean sprouts and shiitake mushrooms topped with crushed peanuts and jicama. If you like it spicy, there’s the Malaysian Panang curry chicken – Malaysian curry smoothed with coconut milk and wok-tossed with mixed vegetables and tender chicken.

If you want to just check out AZN and see what they’re all about for not a lot of money, make a date to stop by on a Sunday. Not only do they offer several sushi rolls at half price, they also include the happy hour menu with its reduced prices ($3 to $8) of very tasty selections. That’s exactly what I did very recently. My guest and I sat at the bar and really enjoyed several items. We started with the Vietnamese spring rolls, with its crunchy exterior and deliciously flavorful interior. The dipping sauce worked very nicely. We also enjoyed the calamari, which was nice and tender and prepared with a tasty tempura batter; also with a yummy dipping sauce. The half-priced sushi, including the spider roll, was delicious.

Several other items are worth checking out on the happy hour menu, which is available every day from 4 to 7 p.m. and until closing on Sunday. The Korean Bibimbop burger is a Korean-style Wagyu beef patty with tomato, cucumber slice, sautéed carrot and a fried egg, all on a pretzel bun. It arrives with tempura fries. You also can choose red dragon shrimp, spicy tuna roll, Asian fish bites or kimchee fish tacos.

Vegetable, rice and noodle specialties include gluten-free offerings. In this case, the Pad Thai noodle – flat rice noodles tossed with egg, chicken and shrimp in a fish tamarind sauce served with fresh bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. There also are many vegetarian-enticing items, like the Yu Shang eggplant – Japanese eggplant sautéed with garlic, ginger and Yu Shang sauce.

Just as with the other menu selections, desserts are made with flair. A delicious example is the AZN chocolate caramel apple – a large Fuji apple dipped in caramel, then dipped in bittersweet Belgian chocolate, then drizzled with white chocolate and chopped pecans. I also enjoyed the tempura cheesecake, lightly battered and flash fried, topped with chocolate ganache. Both are great for sharing.

I have to congratulate the wait staff. They are more than just knowledgeable about the menu. They also know how the dishes are prepared. Our server on one evening was great at helping to choose from the choice of cooking process on the whole fish entrée. A house specialty, seasonal fresh whole fish is creatively prepared with an Asian flair. By the way, the fish was perfectly cooked and delicious.

There’s a refined look and feel to AZN that is well reflected in the presentation of each item. This is as it should be with an upscale restaurant. Upscale, yet quite affordable, especially on Sunday evening. As they are now celebrating their one-year anniversary, there are several special events planned, such as AZN’s Anniversary Chef’s Dinner on Saturday, Oct. 5. They kick off the new Sunday brunch the following day, Oct. 6, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

I anticipate AZN will be occupying that corner for years to come, realizing the success they are experiencing in Atlanta. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well. I hope you enjoy them as much as I and my guests have.

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