When Pabu closed in June 2014, Baltimore lost its premiere Japanese and sushi restaurant. Sure, there are several places in both the county and city to get very delicious sushi, but most lack that certain authenticity that Pabu brought. Not to be outdone by the Michael Mina Restaurant Group, the Atlas Restaurant Group opened Azumi shortly after Pabu’s departure from the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East.
Azumi is similar to its predecessor in many ways, featuring an upscale tavern-style Japanese menu as well as sushi highlighting fish flown in from the Tsukiji market in Japan. The location right in the heart of Harbor East could not be better, with an outdoor patio area overlooking Pier 6 and the Inner Harbor. The interior is contemporary but minimalist, with an eye-catching display of Japanese urns running through the center of the restaurant. The displays of urns also act as a division between the sushi bar and the main dining area.
When I had dined at Azumi once last year for lunch, I just sat at the sushi counter and watched the chefs meticulously work as they churned out sushi orders, including my Sashimi lunch (10 pieces of sashimi and a tuna roll). That experience certainly showcased a delicious offering of fresh fish, and what was easily the best tuna I’ve ever had – but I really wanted to return for dinner to sample more of the menu.
In my most recent patronage to Azumi, my wife and I couldn’t resist the outdoor heated patio on a Saturday evening. We started the meal with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, knowing it would pair well with sushi. The menu is relatively large for dinner, with options of hot or cold appetizers, a la carte sushi, sushi dinners, and Japanese-inspired entrees. The cold appetizers sounded more appetizing than their hot counterparts, but most cold preparations also happen to be raw.
Sushi was an easy compromise in the hot versus cold appetizers debate, although the king crab leg (hot), Sawagani crabs (hot), and Azumi crudo tasting (cold – salmon, waygu, hamachi, kanpachi) all sounded very delicious. We opted for a salmon avocado roll and the spicy yellowtail roll. We had hoped the sushi would come before the entrees, but everything arrived simultaneously which was a bit annoying. Regardless, the sushi was very tasty for the most part. The salmon avocado roll wasn’t any better or worse than my go-to sushi spot Umi Sake (Cockeysville), but the spicy yellow tail signature roll was definitely interesting. This roll featured avocado and cucumber on the inside, with a spicy yellowtail mixture on top, garnished with chimichurri and a yucca chip. The chimichurri really elevated this roll and made it stand out; in fact it was reminiscent to flavors you would find at Sushi Samba.
For entrees, I got the nigiri dinner while my wife went with the duck breast with a soy blueberry reduction – one of the specials that evening. In case portions were meager, we also ordered a side of Waygu fried rice.
The nigiri dinner included the Chef’s choice of seven pieces of nigiri (sliced fish over rice) plus a spicy tuna roll. I don’t quite remember each fish offered in the nigiri, but it definitely included tuna, yellowtail, salmon, some kind of mackerel, shrimp, eel and one other fish. The nigiri was spot-on, the fish was incredibly fresh and had that perfect texture and appearance you would expect from a restaurant of this caliber. Some minor flaws though were how the eel was cold, not sure if that was intentional or not, and the use of spicy mayo on the spicy tuna roll seemed really out of place. Sure, spicy mayo is the go-to garnish for almost every sushi restaurant cranking out mediocre specialty sushi rolls with subpar fish, but I would have really expected more from Azumi. The spicy mayo completely overshadowed any subtle beauty the tuna from Japan surely had, and it just didn’t feel at all authentic.
I sampled some of my wife’s duck, which I really enjoyed. The duck had the fat rendered very nicely, yielding very crispy skin. I will say I thought the duck was a bit overcooked to be point of being well done, but my wife, who prefers duck cooked to that temperature, actually appreciated that it arrived that way. The blueberry reduction served with the duck was absolutely delicious, a perfect complement to the protein and was a good dipping sauce for other items on the table. The dish included Japanese style potato salad and pickled carrots – both of which were lackluster and didn’t really make sense in my opinion. The Japanese potato salad was essentially cooked potatoes with hints of wasabi to elevate them – it was fine but really nothing special compared to the duck. The carrots were also fine, but the fact that they were cold and pickled didn’t really make sense with the duck.
I’m glad we ordered the waygu beef fried rice as a side, because unlike the potatoes and carrots this actually paired well with the duck and was great for sopping up the remaining blueberry reduction. As for the sides included with entrees, it seems like Azumi might struggle with this in general since most of their social media pictures showcase nicely prepared proteins with lame sides that don’t compliment the dish. To take it even further, sides such as seared brocolini or potato salad just seem too “Americanized”, and aren’t what you would expect in a fine dining restaurant.
Despite these issues, I still really enjoyed my meal at Azumi. The highs definitely outweigh the lows and I would certainly return to sample more menu offerings. The prices at Azumi are on par with most other fine dining establishments in Baltimore, but compared to other sushi restaurants in the city or county the prices are doubled. I honestly can’t say this was the greatest sushi I’ve ever had, but it certainly didn’t disappoint either.