Sam Fox’s new Phoenix eatery makes a splash with fresh, seasonal catches and retro charm
It’s easy to fall hook, line and sinker for Little Cleo’s. Part of Valley restaurateur Sam Fox’s adaptive reuse project The Yard, the skiff-sized seafood eatery has all the trappings of a Chesapeake Bay diner circa 1950: white subway tiles, chrome counter stools, nautical wainscoting. Staff members also get in on the anachronistic act. Male servers sport plaid button-downs or Buddy Holly specs while ladies are perfect pin-up dolls in A-line frocks and hair flowers.
The Little Cleo’s look may be vintage, but the seafood itself is practically still swimming. Oysters are delivered daily, and diver scallop crudo ($10) is some of the freshest around. Sliced thin and accompanied by a multidimensional veggie medley, the grill-kissed scallops have a delightful melt-in-your-mouth texture. Zesty mint brightens the smokiness of blue crab toast ($13), while crisp, spicy frog legs ($12) coated in Thai fish sauce and nuts were so finger-licking good we picked their tiny bones clean.
Executive chef Clint Woods’ risky sturgeon experiment pays off in the unusual “bacon & eggs” ($12). Smoked for five days and cooked in its own fatty juices, the farm-raised fish has a woodsy bite that complements the sweet, nutty mash-up of crème fraîche, runny egg and grilled bread. Though the flaky sturgeon lacks the toothsome crunch of crisp bacon, the dish still transcends its breakfast sandwich counterpart by a nautical mile.
Sam Fox is known for accessible menus, and Little Cleo’s is no exception. Sure, grilled baby octopus might scare away meat-and-potatoes types, but the culinary adventure ship is righted by surefire staples like the tangy shrimp po’ boy ($13) and crunchy battered fish filets with thick-cut chips ($17). Hearty eaters will also appreciate Cajun shrimp ($18), a peppery stew loaded with wedge potatoes and corn-on-the-cob to calm the bayou burn. Paired with Little Cleo’s tangy blood orange and pineapple “royale” cocktail ($8), the fragrant flavor beneath the heat emerges.
Loup de mer ($31), which translates to “wolf of the sea,” is touted as one of the eatery’s most popular entrées, but the fish – thinner and less oily than standard sea bass – seems to emit a howl of sorrow, its delicate flavor bullied by a pungent, vinegary sauce. In contrast, the tomato-, fennel- and saffron-infused broth of the bouillabaisse ($24) is so scrumptious you’ll want extra bread to mop up every drop.
It’s easy to see where Woods’ focus lays – Little Cleo’s was named for a fishing lure, after all. Still, some of the non-piscine sides and desserts are worth mentioning. The redheaded stepchild of restaurant veggies, squash ($5), gets a vibrant makeover with spring onion and lemon. Ripe cherries and sharp Amish cheddar make bitter greens palatable in the black kale salad ($9). And kudos to Woods for making delicious maple-glazed cake donuts ($6) that taste of Vermont rather than Mrs. Butterworth’s – though they’d be better warm. Whether you make it to dessert or just pop by for oysters du jour, fresh seasonal ingredients and cleverly approached seafood make Little Cleo’s a real catch.
Little Cleo’s Seafood Legend
Address: 5632 N. Seventh Street, Phoenix
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Highlights: Diver scallop crudo ($10); crispy frog legs ($12); sturgeon “bacon & eggs” ($12); black kale salad ($9); toy box squash ($5); fish and chips ($17);
seafood bouillabaisse ($24); old-fashioned cake donuts ($6)
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