Another boutique hotel, another upscale dining room. The only difference here is that the hotel is the century-old Lenox, so the dining room is part of a repositioning. No expense has been spared to make things go smoothly, but the concept itself is not entirely smooth. On the one hand, one must keep a foot in the Lenox’s respectable but more modest past, which translates into somewhat conventional chicken and steak platters, and a power-breakfast menu as well. On the other hand, the path to elite status involves some uncertain footing. Do you get famous with a theme, or with very expensive ingredients, or with very extensive cheffery, or the right combination? And what’s the combination?
The hotel made a sound move by bringing in Robert Fathman (ex-Trio, ex–Grill 23, but crucially ex-Federalist). He or the hotel then picked a theme: azure, like the sea and the sky, so the restaurant features exotic seafood as fresh as air-express can produce it. That sets Azure apart from the crowd touting local seafood, but on the opening menu, I thought the Atlantic lobster and flatfish outshone the West Coast scallops and Hawaiian sea bass. I also thought some dishes were over-intellectual or overly detailed, but Azure is certainly posh, pretty, and a little romantic — a big step away from the pedestrian, old-Lenox image.
The room is airy and mostly blue-and-gold moderne, without too much interference from the Corinthian columns and Edwardian windows of the old hotel. I personally wouldn’t have background music at these prices, or if I did it would be quiet, instrumental, and consistent in style.
Food begins nicely with an amuse-bouche of a tiny beet slice, a bit of feta, and a bit of walnut — like a two-bite salad. A bread server comes with a box bearing your choice of potato roll, French-bread roll (have that), sourdough slices (maybe those), and Iggy-style raisin-nut slices. Refills were provided, but not toward the end of entrées, which is when you might really want a roll to soak up a terrific sauce. On the table is a mild spinach-cottage-cheese spread, unsalted butter, and a mini-turret of large-grain salt.
On the appetizer list, it’s hard to resist something called " Oysters in Bondage " ($14), but perhaps you should, since the treatment overwhelms the subtle shellfish. I don’t think they’re actually whipped, but the four oysters (possibly belons) are tied up in smoked salmon, encased in grated potato, and fried like latkes. A dab of caviar restores the sea flavor, but this is pure chef-showoff food.
On the other hand, Fathman’s goat-cheese flan ($12) is just as artificial, but it works. The chèvre flavor is highlighted by French-fried onion strings and lightened with baby beets and other vegetables underneath. " Very Good Lobster Soup " ($12) is that, with just enough lobster-flavored light cream to cover a little cake of corn and lobster mousse in the bowl. Seared mano de leon ( " lion’s paw " ) scallops ($13) are our first taste of exotic seafood. These large scallops are from Baja California, but I found them blander than the North Shore diver scallops featured elsewhere. They’re served in the new spread-out style, with one scallop on a raft of cauliflower-potato purée at one end of a long plate and the other on some Napa-cabbage slaw at the other end. I would favor the purée over the slaw, which is as sharp as sauerkraut and probably more suited to something less lean, like a bit of grilled eel or foie gras.
My favorite entrée was again relatively local seafood: sautéed Casco Bay sea dabs with Peekytoe crabmeat ($26), slices of a tasty flat fish made more so with toppings of crab meat. Beneath are a lot of baby vegetables and some carrot purée. A more ambitious entrée of Hawaiian sea bass ($27) is good, but the central fish is not so flavorful. The Hawaiian sea bass is not related to the endangered Chilean sea bass or any of the Atlantic basses; it’s actually a large grouper. On the plate at Azure are two large steaks of a dense white fish with about the flavor of restaurant halibut — good, but not equal to a Caribbean grouper. The sauce is something like a gumbo, with salty chopped clams and codfish roe, and two large, head-on prawns.
Because Azure is a hotel restaurant, it can’t be all seafood. Roast rack of lamb ($36) might not be on Fathman’s dream menu, but it’s very successful here, with nice details like a nut crust, a " hash " of tiny Brussels sprouts and baby carrots, and refreshingly normal mashed potatoes. Grilled bone-on rib eye ($34) is the mandatory steak. Its most notable attribute is size: you could slice three normal rib steaks out of the piece we were served. This thick piece requires careful cooking; we ordered medium-rare and got medium-well, but the tasty entrecôte was still very enjoyable. The garnish is a tower of three giant onion rings filled with watercress salad. The Roquefort mousse is more like Roquefort cheese, which is hard to use as a flavoring. A little reduced wine sauce doesn’t go far with this large slab of meat.
Azure’s wine list was put together by master of wine Sandy Block, and it’s extensive but not cheap. If you like merlot, the list has a dozen from California ($38–$140), and also some St. Emilions from Bordeaux. With red meat and seafood, I like Beaujolais, and the 2000 Juliénas from Potel-Aviron ($40) is true to type (red, strawberry-fruity, light), but with extra elegance and finesse. Black and herbal teas ($4.50) are made loose-leaf in a china pot.
Our desserts were all over the top, though still within shouting range of the top. Four crème brûlées ($8) are just that, a glass plate with four indentations, each holding a two-bite crème brûlée, in the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and caramel. This must be a fun taste test for some diners, but I would have preferred the chef to commit to one style. Warm pear soup with gingerbread doughnuts ($8) seems doubly pointless. The gingery soup is just soupy; the doughnut and doughnut hole, mere doughnuts. The plate comes with a small butter cookie with a little pyramid of ice cream on it. Maybe it’s like the doll house in Edward Albee’s play Tiny Alice, a kind of voodoo doll of the whole hotel. Eggnog assiette ($8) is a postmodern game board of pleasant tastes: a parfait glass of eggnog ice cream and coffee jelly, a few mock cannoli of eggnog cream wrapped in tuile, and a small but very rich piece of cake. Sherbets ($7) are somewhat random. I liked the scoops of buttermilk and banana, but couldn’t work out the flavor of the icy granita. Pear? Apple? With the sherbets comes a standing triangle that seems to be halfway between a scone and a granola bar. Why?
Questions were answered effusively but accurately by our waiters, who seemed to have been coached to explain a lot about the menu. My guess is that Azure’s cuisine will always need a lot of explaining, and it might be easier to do so with the printed menus than through the staff. The mix of innovation and tradition, while hard to sustain, may perhaps be very useful to intergenerational parties.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com