Restaurant Review: Aozora

by Elizabeth Palmer Starnes

Zen SaladIf you haven’t noticed, Montclair is absolutely fit to burst with sushi restaurants. Diners have their pick of ten or twelve places at any given time, making it difficult for restaurants to distinguish themselves from the pack.

Aozora manages to accomplish just that, and sets itself apart with high quality, elegant food served with a European bent. You could describe Aozora as a sort of Asian-European fusion, though they execute traditional Japanese classics with equal flair and precision.

For my dinner there, I started with the spicy miso soup, which was neither overly salty nor overly spicy, and had a clean balance of flavors. The seasonally appropriate pumpkin soup with coconut milk and baby shrimp is Duck Spring Rollanother tempting option as far as soups go.  For salads, I tried the Zen salad; a blend of greens in a crispy sort of wonton bowl topped with delicious ginger dressing. The dressing was a refreshing change from the overly sweet, neon orange dressings in so many places around here. More along the European lines is the Arugula salad, served with warm goat cheese and broth tomato confit and shallot confit- classic ingredients I’ve been seeing quite a lot since I started at the French Culinary Institute.  I also sampled the duck spring rolls, served up crispy but not greasy, stuffed with duck confit and shitake mushrooms, with a yummy plum sauce for dipping.

The salmon carpaccio is definitely one of my favorite items here, served thinly sliced and topped with scallions, Salmon Carpacciosesame seeds, and a lightly spicy sauce. The salmon is buttery perfection, and the sauce really offsets and balances its mellow flavors.

For entrees, Aozora offers a well-curated collection of items to choose from. Regardless of what you’re hungry for, something will surely peak your interest. Seared duck, oven roasted chicken, lamb steak, Angus beef sirloin, and even surf and turf can be ordered, all beautifully sauced and paired. Though I have to admit, even though these options are tempting, whenever I come to Aozora I opt for the sushi. The unorthodox sushi sandwich is not to be missed, with salmon sashimi layered over a crispy rice “sandwich” bottom and drizzled with spicy sauce and scallions. All the rolls are impeccably prepared, obviously composed of the freshest ingredients, and with more attention to detail then I’ve seen anywhere this side of the Hudson. The quality of the food at Aozora is unparalleled to anything I’ve had outside of New York City.  Aozora could certainly stand up to NYC restaurants like Tao and Buddakan, which charge double or even triple the price for the same caliber of food.

My only complaint with Aozora is the ambience. When I ate there recently, the usually packed restaurant was sparsely filled, the lights seemed brighter, and the lack of music caused the patrons’ voices to amplify. Food this amazing deserves an equally incredible platform on which to be enjoyed! With a few subtle tweaks to the ambience I’m sure that Aozora will get back the patronage it deserves. Though all critiques on ambience aside, I’ll definitely be going back to Aozora, the food is just that good.