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Splashy Pan-Asian keeps it fresh in SouthPark

Nothing brings the present into a conversation like texting. When Raymond and Anna Hsu were looking for a name for their new restaurant concept, their son offered AZN, the text lingo for Asian. This past October, the Hsus opened their second AZN Azian Cuisine, in SouthPark. The first is in Naples, Fla. There's no mistaking the pedigree of AZN, though. Raymond Hsu, from Hong Kong, and wife Anna, from northern China, have owned Asian-themed restaurants in Atlanta for more than three decades.

But years ago, the Hsus eschewed ancient Chinese formulaic restaurant decor. AZN's grand dining room exudes a contemporary look, warmed by dark woods, reds and golds. An interior wall of sparkling glass tile curves from the entrance to reveal a long sushi bar along the back wall. Above the main dining area is a sizable second floor.

The focus at AZN is high-quality Asian-themed food. At the helm of the kitchen is extended family member Alex Hsu, who opened AZN in Naples. The menu offers the best of expected Asian cuisine: pad thai, Hong Kong fried noodle, Korean short ribs, Malaysian panang curry and sushi. Smartly, the Hsus have included dishes like General Tzu's Chicken, Kung Pao shrimp and lo mein for patrons seeking the familiar.

But AZN's dishes are not rooted in the food court or mom-and-pop Chinese joints. There is nothing suburban about the food. AZN offers a delicious amalgam of classic Asian dishes and modern verve. By using impeccable ingredients, the dishes sparkle. The Hsus use a high grade of tuna for dishes as diverse as Hawaiian ahi poke, tuna tataki and a seared tuna entrée. The latter is artfully fanned across the plate with only the soba noodle salad as catafalque for this king.

Asian staples dot the starter list: a respectable lettuce wrap with sautéed chicken (or pork or vegetable) is made crunchy with water chestnuts and enlivened with oyster sauce. The dumplings, perfectly steamed, disappeared within minutes of hitting the table. Dumplings, when right, are magical.

So what if an occasional suspicious-sounding, not strictly Asian-fusion creation, like Mongolian beef soft taco, sneaks into the menu lineup? Save your pronouncement until after you bite into the well-executed crab cake and baby arugula with pomegranate plum slurry.

While lighter eaters can nibble on pristine sweet shrimp sushi, to be truly indulgent, order the duck. The Chinese perfected the art of roasting duck a millennium ago. AZN's duck is Cantonese-style, with fragrant skin so crispy it melts in your mouth. Though oddly paired with flour tortillas, the duck entrée distinguishes itself.

AZN has a well-chosen wine list selected by one manager who comes to the restaurant from a local wine shop. Recently, AZN hosted its first wine dinner.

What the Hsus will need to overcome — as have many ethnic restaurateurs before them — is the idea that quality costs. The Chilean sea bass is $29; the Korean short ribs are $28. Yet many of the more predictable entrées, such as General Tzu's chicken, are under $15.

Until recently, food lovers were more apt to buy food in unexpected places — food trucks and farmers markets — than in upscale restaurants. However, a noticeable trend started in 2012: People who love food are spending money on quality dishes. These people want plates that are visually pleasing — so they can take photos on their phones and send them off to friends. They want the ability to order interesting wines and scan the bottles into their phones and read wine scores. And they want a place where they can enjoy this passionate gastronomic pursuit, in a dining room where conversations can flourish. It's the joie de vivre phase in America. I wonder how you text joie de vivre.

AZN: Azian Cuisine. 4620 Piedmont Row Drive, 980-819-9189. Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Gluten free and spicier dishes denoted on menu. Patio.

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