Tom Sietsema: Azur, where seafood sparkles

Diners don’t need a menu to tell them they’re in for something fishy at Azur.

A simple sweep of the eyes around chef Frederik De Pue’s fresh, three-story dining room in Penn Quarter provides plenty of clues that patrons won’t be nibbling on charcuterie or gnawing on bones — as they do at seemingly every other new restaurant.

That’s because there’s water, water everywhere at Azur, or at least lots of allusions to it. The ground floor is a sea of powder-blue pillows and captain’s mirrors that suggest portholes. The second floor is a splash more rustic, with wallpaper that appears to be old wood but also sea-blue tabletops and a raw bar. Few customers want to be led to the claustrophobic top floor, judging from the stream of diners going up — and quickly asking the host for a table elsewhere. Uniting the levels is an impressive string of 60 clear glass balls that look like bubbles blown by Poseidon.

Abundant sea treasures are strewn among first courses. I’m hooked on wild sardines set in a sassy red pool of vinegar and olive oil and dressed with breakfast radish slices and diced green apple, one of three launches offered on Azur’s three-course, $35 pre-theater menu. Charred octopus tendrils on a crusty slab of pork belly is surf and turf made dramatic with a black backdrop of squid ink brushed on a white plate. Lighter in all respects is the crudo of golden tilefish, its shimmering slices cured in black lime, edged in espelette pepper and arranged with white asparagus on a stripe of pureed avocado and cilantro. (The ocean-sweetness of the raw fish comes from its diet of crustaceans.) But the style award goes to uni “cappuccino,” a little island of sea urchin and fennel compote floating in a froth of hot milk infused with shallots and garnished with feathery fennel fronds. The beauty-in-a-bowl segues from light to rich in every sip. And from that sleek, six-stool raw bar come cleanly shucked oysters from the East and West coasts as well as house-cured fish and caviar. A welcome companion to these openers is a salad of shaved asparagus tossed with peppery mizuna greens and toasted hazelnuts.

By now it should be clear as a glass-bottom boat: Azur pays tribute to seafood and the European restaurants De Pue knows well. Born in Belgium, the chef went on to cook at Sea Grill, the Michelin-praised seafood restaurant in his homeland. An interest in sustainability came later; leftover oyster shells at Azur are sent to area beaches or oyster beds.

The main course that calls to me most is dorade, also known as sea bream, cooked in a salt crust and neatly filleted at the table if you wish. Juicy and delicate, the white flesh of the fish is flattered with a buttery lemon sauce and a succotash of green and yellow vegetables, among them fava beans and coins of summer squash. Close behind on the pleasure scale is branzino, crisp and meaty (with bacon) and resting on creamy farro, an ancient grain made contemporary with fresh herbs.

Mussels, clams and lobster are presented in broad casseroles, or “en cocotte,” with a choice of globally inspired broths. My one encounter with the style, steamed mussels in a broth of chorizo, cilantro and pasilla chili, was less of an adventure than it sounds, mostly because the bivalves were blah.

Previously home to Cafe Atlantico, Minibar and the historical pop-up America Eats Tavern, all by JoséAndrés, the seafood restaurant erases their memories with its design details. The vivid palette of Latin America has been replaced by plants as wall art and sleekchairs. Azur, for which De Pue served as general contractor, would blend in easily in Amsterdam or Berlin.

Not every dish is a catch. Fried calamari with garlic chili sauce tastes nothing like anything I tasted in Vietnam, Azur’s supposed source of inspiration for the appetizer. The sauce is Shirley Temple sweet. Grilled cobia reels in another drag on the fun. The grilled fish here has the texture of rubber erasers. Desserts are a mixed lot. A trio of custards leave an unpleasant aftertaste in their wake, but the strawberry-rhubarb clafoutis — sweet-tart fruit covered in batter and baked — would be at home in a French kitchen.

Not up for fish? Not a problem. The kitchen, under the watch of chef de cuisine Robert Rubba Jr., the former chef de cuisine at Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, offers an appetizer of creamy burrata cheese encircled by bright green peas that sing spring and a bistro-licious main course steak flanked with golden french fries and lush bearnaise sauce.

The wine list has me scratching my head. Italy is well-represented, but why include so many trophy labels from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the U.S. West Coast when there are great deals to be found in, say, Spain (think albarino and godello)? Also under-represented is the Loire region, home to the best muscadets and some terrific lesser-known Sancerres. By the glass, the better values include the Borgo San Daniele Tocai Friulano ($12) from Italy’s Friuli region and the Catherine Auther Sylvaner ($10) from Alsace in France. Refreshing, fruit-driven and mineral-rich, both wines complement a school of Azur’s fish selections. A bargain, and a treat, among the red wines is the Santa Lucia Uva di Troia from Puglia in Italy ($13 by the glass, $51 by the bottle).

Azur has not been the overnight sensation that De Pue’s first restaurant, Table, was when it opened in Shaw in January, says the chef. He thinks the slower acceptance is the result of Azur’s size (three times that of Table), its relatively healthful focus and “lots of restaurants opening” all over the city.

He’s right about diners enjoying a pool of choices these days. Yet Azur, like Table before it, is a rising tide lifting all boats.

★★½

(Good/Excellent)
A zur

405 Eighth St. NW. 202-347-7491. azurdc.com.

OPEN:Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. Closed Monday.

METRO: Archives/Navy Memorial and Gallery Place/Chinatown.

PRICES: Appetizers $10 to $15, main courses $18 to $38. Three-course, pre-theater menu is $35 and must be ordered by 7 p.m.

SOUND CHECK:72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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