Restaurant Review - Continental adrift

Azel gives good feng shui but falters in its fusion fare

My stress level drops the moment I walk through Azel's austere golden door. A tall copper fountain surrounded by a short stone wall trickles serenely. The large dining room is anchored by a curving, dark wood banquette covered with a quiet beige floral pattern. Tables with white cloths and lovely wooden chairs are placed just so around the room. The lights are dim, the music is soft and the air is cool. I suddenly feel like meditating.Unfortunately, the food at this East-West fusion restaurant in Alpharetta doesn't evoke the same sense of peace. The busy menu vigorously leaps the continents, from "Cajun corn flake calamari with Thai coconut curry sauce" to "miso-sake marinated Chilean sea bass with wasabi soy syrup." If you're in the mood for something more austere, there's also a full sushi bar.

"I'm not really sure, to be honest. I don't eat raw fish." This is the response from our young server when we ask her to help us choose a sushi roll. It's a shame she doesn't have any answers, since, it turns out, sushi is what Azel does best.

We play it safe and order a couple pieces of nigiri sushi and the Seven Bites ($20), a sampling of appetizers selected nightly on the chef's whim. Only one out of the seven bites proves satisfying. The slices of Peking duck have crispy skin and tender, juicy meat. But the fried chicken satay tastes like Houlihan's chicken fingers on a stick. Chunks of tuna have been marinated in soy sauce for too long and are so overcooked they taste more like tofu than fish. The puny fried crab claws, batter-covered shrimp, bland beef strips and marginally fresh scallops are no better.

Meanwhile, the server quietly brings our order of sushi. The yellow tail ($4) is silky and mild. The toro, or fatty tuna ($6.50), is smooth and buttery.

Our entrees are largely a disappointment. There's a cloyingly sweet peanut satay sauce on the grilled organic chicken breast ($16). The braised beef ribs ($18) seasoned with Chinese five-spice are fork tender but suffer the same overly sweet fate.

The roasted lobster ($24) has an overcooked, mealy texture, and the accompanying sauce tastes like it was made from generic yellow curry powder found in supermarkets. The lobster is arranged over a pointless mound of mashed potatoes, which also show up under the flat-tasting grilled salmon ($18) and the subtly seasoned lamb chops with roasted fruit in soy-red wine sauce ($24). The mashed potato fad is tired. Please find another starch.

We finish our meal with a weird but fun dessert of ice cream wrapped in mochi ($4), a Japanese confection made of rice flour. Mochi has an odd, chewy consistency that tastes like something you secretly ate as a kid that wasn't necessarily meant for human consumption. The dessert is oddly addictive.

I return to Azel on a Friday lunch to hone in on the sushi menu. The manager had said that business was livelier at lunch, but we find only a few tables occupied. The trickling copper fountain looks lonely. We opt to sit at the sushi bar and try several maki rolls. My favorite is a combination of fresh water eel and ripe avocado ($9) rolled with seaweed and rice, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and draped with lacquered salmon. Each bite is by turns crunchy and smooth, sweet and saline. The sushi chef also constructs a colorful rainbow roll ($8) that sneaks shrimp in with the assortment of fish.

The wait staff on both visits is earnest but uninformed. The same server who didn't eat raw fish also couldn't recommend one type of sake over another. "It's not really the drink of choice for a college person, ya know?" she says with a shrug.

What she can tell us is the origin of the restaurant's moniker: The last two letters in Azel come from the owners' names, Emily Fu and Chenning Li. The first two letters refer to their menu, which runs the gamut from A to Z.

And that's exactly the problem with this restaurant. Maybe if they try to tackle only half the alphabet they'll be more successful. For now, come for the room's serenity and stick with the sushi.