Azu means "fire" in Japanese, and the heat is both sweet and subtle at the new restaurant of that name recently opened by venerable restaurateur Lucy Ho.
Its interior is warm and welcoming -- from the elegant bamboo wall on one side of the intimate dining area to the jewel-toned panels and discs that adorn the wall facing customers as they enter.
A trio of sumo wrestlers, looking happy and well-fed, watches over diners. Soft jazz plays in the background.
This soothing decor was planned with a purpose.
"The economy has affected us a lot," Ho said. "We realize that when people go out to eat, they want to make sure the price is worth it. It's more than just the food, it's the look."
Azu, located in a tiny strip mall on Apalachee Parkway just off Capital Circle, is more than a scaled-down version of the Lucy Ho bistro on Halstead Boulevard that closed earlier this year because of parking problems and the need for Keiser College to expand.
It's more family-oriented than Masa, the Lucy Ho restaurant on Monroe Street, and has eschewed the buffet, that ubiquitous staple of many Chinese restaurants.
That's a plus -- it means that what you order is always tasty, fresh, hot, and beautiful to behold.
The lunch menu features trendy, red-lacquered bento boxes -- sectioned-off plates filled with one of 18 savory entrees, ranging from General Tso's Chicken to Pork Katsu with Sweet Chili Sauce to Shrimp & Vegetable Tempura. Along with a spring roll, side dish of the day, noodles and fried rice, it all adds up to a pocketbook-pleasing $8.
Also available are soups -- the Hot & Sour is silky, delicious and chock-full of tofu and vegetables -- and starters such as the Tuna Tartar, the sure-fire hit that's a regular at Masa. And, of course, there's a lengthy sushi menu.
"We wanted to simplify the new menu to make sure we do the best job we can," said Shaun Lee, the restaurant's marketing manager and Ho's nephew. "Most Chinese (restaurants) offer the same thing with different names. You order Kung Pao Chicken or Cashew Chicken, it's the same. We don't want that."
The dinner menu is more formal and is a work in progress. Many of Ho's signature dishes -- such as Miso Black Cod with Asparagus, Shiitake Steak Ribeye with Mushroom Sauce, and Braised Tofu with Two Mushrooms and Chinese Vegetables -- are on the menu, but she's still asking people to make suggestions.
"If a customer has a favorite dish, we should keep it," she said. "They should let us know."
Currently the restaurant serves only beer, wine and sake, but, if there's a demand, it may open a full bar area next year with outside seating.
Lee is just one of several long-time Ho staffers who has a hand in running Azu. Kenny Fan, nephew of Lucy's husband, John, is the kitchen manager, and Masa Nagashima, who has worked for Ho for more that 30 years, is the manager.
"We'll keep the old employees in the kitchen (as part of the restaurant's quality assurance plan)," Ho said.
Still, no matter how good the staff is -- and they've proven themselves over the years -- Lucy Ho, who will celebrate her 40th year as a capital city restaurateur next year, is the brand name that lures Tallahasseeans to her restaurants, no matter where they're situated in town. In her 70s, she's as energetic as ever (she was costuming a new opera at Florida State University while the new restaurant was getting up and running, and last summer toured Australia with her husband and daughter) and will consult on and provide the recipes for Azu.
"If you want to do a good job," she said, "it's not so easy."
Good things seldom are.
Janie Nelson is a local food writer and editor.
if you go
What: Azu, A Lucy Ho's Restaurant
When: Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, 3 to 10 p.m. for dinner Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 3 to 10 p.m. for dinner Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch and 3 to 9 p.m. for dinner Sunday
Where: 3220 Apalachee Parkway
Contact: Call 850.893.4112Go To Menu