Secluded on Brickell Key, a man-made island connected to Miami proper, you’ll find the Mandarin Oriental, a five-star luxury hotel with a sparkling view of the cityscape. Though the venue is outfitted with roughly 300 rooms and suites, its three dining options — La Mar by Gaston Acurio, Azul, and MO Bar+Lounge — are frequented by both locals and travelers alike.
In this “Table 42” vignette, we explore Azul, a Miami Top 25 Restaurant, with Chef de Cuisine Benjamin Murray. He describes the restaurant’s cuisine style as modern American with a heavy Asian-Japanese influence.
“We do our takes on modern American cuisine,” says Murray. “Which is using modern techniques with classic ingredient combinations sometimes, and we try to bring a lot of Japanese and Asian ingredients to make it different.”
The philosophy behind the restaurant, simply put, is to approach a modern American menu with Japanese and Asian ingredients using modern cooking techniques — “to add a different ‘wow’ factor, to make it approachable, but different and interesting,” he adds.
Murray has worked in a couple of different Japanese restaurants over the years, and wanted to take that training and those experiences with him to Azul, where he replaced William Crandall this past summer. Previously, he was working as Crandall’s sous chef, and before that, held the position of junior sous chef at ZUMA in downtown Miami. But Murray’s experience with this type of fusion cuisine goes beyond his culinary degree and commercial kitchens.
“My dad is originally from Miami, so I was raised in a tradition where [my mom] would always cook Japanese meals, and then she would cook American-style meals,” says Murray. “So I learned a lot of ingredients and all that.”
In the episode above, Chef Murray shows us how to make Azul’s beef tartare with both traditional and non-traditional ingredients. “The great part about this dish,” he says, “is that there’s so many textures and flavors that go into it.”
The dish starts with prime beef tenderloin, mixed with a bit of house-made Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, dijon mustard and Japanese mustard, and salt. It’s then topped with fried garlic, caper brown gelée, and white Worcestershire. “The tartare, we’re actually going to smoke it tableside, so we want to enhance that by adding some smoked mayonnaise.” Egg and herbs are added to the dish, as well. “What really makes it different and sort of mountainous are these potato skins, so we just bake these regular Idaho potatoes, and then we take rice wine vinegar powder with some starch called tapioca maltodextrin, and we mix that together, and this is what creates the snow effect for the tartare.” The plating is just as beautiful as the ingredients itself, a smoking mountain of flavor.
“We want to have dishes that are really well thought out, that we pay a lot of attention and detail to,” says Murray. “The dishes that we do are plated beautifully — it takes a while to execute. Everything is cooked at the last second, so we don’t want to make such a big menu and have tons of options when we can make a smaller, impactful menu that’s really well thought out and balanced.”
The chef’s table at Azul provides a birds-eye-view of the kitchen, so guests can feel part of the action. “We plate at the pass, so it’s a little bit different than a regular kitchen,” he says. “So you get to see everything that happens.”
“Azul has been around for 15 years, but I think now we’re bringing something different to the table, we’re making a lot of things on our own — things that you wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago from the chefs that were here,” says Murray. “We’re making our own vinegars, we’re making our own flavors that you can’t get anywhere else.”
In terms of what advice Murray would give to aspiring chefs, he says dedication and immersing yourself in the industry is key. “You have to watch and learn, and just keep your head down. Anything you want to learn, you can, but you have to stay focused — you can never sway from that — and you always have to be completely dedicated to the craft.”