I admit I’m skeptical of actor-owned restaurants, but in the case of Villa Azur, where French heartthrob (and Halle Berry beau) Olivier Martinez is a partner, the injection of celebrity adds just the right accent. Though still in South Beach, this sexy newcomer is ever so slightly off the tourist path yet convenient enough to reach by foot or cab from anywhere on the Beach.
When you walk into the grand marble foyer outfitted with antiques and creamy drapes, you are transported. This is European elegance translated to the tropics — posh but not pretentious. The ceilings are fitted with hand-carved molding, and only the too-wide wooden columns detract from the view.
A cadre of professional waiters in well-fitted black pants and tailored button-downs does a fine job of serving the tables set with thick linen, simple silver and weighty crystal.
There is a youthful, chic air about the place that keeps it from being, how do you say, obnoxious. Maybe it’s the kitschy, DJ-fueled soundtrack that veers from Michael Jackson’s Thriller-era hits to Terrence Trent D’arby and The Talking Heads. Or maybe it’s the lush patio, where leather sofas offer prime seating when the weather is dry.
Thanks to Nice native Mickael Bensa, the cooking is exquisite. His steak tartare and Chateaubriand are near perfect in execution and presentation, if quaintly old-fashioned.
Meals begin with toast points and anchovy butter or perhaps a mild olive tapenade. The golden bread, crackling-crusted and airy inside, is, like everything else here, oh so French.
A sunny salad of tender asparagus spears, red pepper, eggplant and arugula showered with a confetti of chives and parsley was the perfect antidote for a rainy evening.
The restaurant dabbles in Italian flavors, as in the tender veal medallions layered between polenta rounds and smoothly al dente penne with morels, but it is seafood in any language that it does best.
Huge towers of icy, eye-candy raw-bar specialties glide by as if the waiters are on skates. You half expect to see pearls propped in the mouths of such supple oysters.
Thumb-size octopus in a beautifully Sicilian caponata is crunchy, spicy and bitey, all in good measure. Other standouts include gorgeously seared tuna with a gentle soy dressing and creamy slivers of avocado.
Branzino is stunningly grilled with hatch-marked silver skin and flesh that is firm yet moist and just salty enough to evoke the sea.
But it is the bouillabaisse that is the most transporting dish on the menu. Served in a deep black iron pot and big enough for a fisherman’s family, it is packed with tender red snapper, pristine nickel-sized clams and meaty prawns in a smooth, tomato-based broth. We were not, unfortunately, offered shell bowls for our discards, and there was no ladle to spoon out servings, leaving us to dig into the huge pot. That left the matter of condiments, including lovely croutes and a rich, saffron-scented rouille plus just-shaved Gruyere, a little awkward.
Side dishes worth sampling include the irresistible black truffle macaroni and cheese and a textbook Gratin Dauphinois, the cheesy potatoes velvety throughout.
There are wines for quaffers to connoisseurs from a good selection of rosés, including a simple Les Jolies Filles for $45.
Desserts were not nearly as impressive as the savory side of the menu. A thick, box-shaped lemon meringue pie had too much crust for its tart filling, and a classic tart tatin was more carbon than caramel, served with a scoop of grainy almond-milk ice cream.
Still, for a truly impressive night on the town with a French accent and a touch of red-carpet panache, I cannot think of a better new spot than the grand Villa Azur.