At Azul in Miami's Mandarian Oriental, the open kitchen operates at a controlled, yet frenetic pace as customers relax in a zen-like setting of Asian cool. Taken out of context, the brightly lit kitchen, played against the warm glow of the surrounding dining areas, looks like a Hollywood emergency room, starring head chef Clay Conley. During dinner at Azul several months back, an inordinate number of women, presumably on their way to the restroom, stopped to ogle the dashing young chef. Azul could have sold tickets.
But if Conley were just another pretty face, he'd be working elsewhere. Azul's extraordinary reputation is off the charts, which allows it to charge more than $50 for some entrees. You've gotta have the chops to back up those prices, and Conley does.
Before arriving in Miami, the 33-year-old was the culinary director for Todd English, overseeing a 17-restaurant empire. He opened restaurants in Washington DC, Las Vegas and Tokyo during his nine-year tenure with English.
Azul conducted an international search to replace its former acclaimed chef, Michele Bernstein, and Conley got the nod on the strength of his Mediterranean cuisine with Asian influences. Consider, for example, his pan-seared Florida snapper served wtih wilted corn silk, crispy polenta, chorizo and sherried clam sauce. It makes you want to say, “Dr. Clay, make me another one of these, stat!”