Bar Pesce

Nikki BuchananJanuary 2019
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Don’t mourn the passing of Crudo, food fans – its replacement is unrepressed, slightly more global and every bit as brill.

Crab Mi rollAs a proponent of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” philosophy, I’ll admit I viewed chef-owner Cullen Campbell’s recent rebranding of Crudo – his 6-year-old, modern-Italian restaurant in Arcadia Lite – with mild trepidation. If it’s a looser, toned-down concept, as he says, why is the name harder to pronounce? And what, pray tell, would become of Campbell’s famous pig ears? We must have the pig ears!

As it turns out, my fretting was all for naught. The new Bar Pesce (“fish” in Italian, and pronounced pesh-keh) is more wonderful than I could have imagined, a substantive update that features more carefully sourced seafood (via Nelson’s Meat + Fish and Chula Seafood), more Asian influence and more opportunity for Campbell to do whatever he damn well pleases.

Crudo (the Italian term for raw fish dishes) still dominates the menu, and it’s possible I love the new selections even better than the old, beginning with a meaty tartare of bluefin tuna, avocado and fresh horseradish nested in a puddle of olive oil and capped with two brittle sheaths of saline nori. Fatty chunks of swordfish belly, their pale pink color a backdrop for juicy red grapes, licorice-like sprigs of deep green dill and milky white leche de tigre (a spicy, citrus-based marinade used in Peruvian ceviche), may seem like an unorthodox combo, but that’s part of the dish’s appeal, a surprising little mouth-party of contrasts.

Oysters on the half shell, glistening with brown butter, bear the chile spark of Chinese XO (a dried seafood condiment), offering a subtle pop of salt, heat and sugar, while a small flotilla of custard-y Santa Barbara sea urchin, bobbing in acqua pazza (an Italian broth made with garlic, coriander, tomato and chile) is a shortcut to ceviche, the broth so good I want to tip the bowl and drink it.

biscuit doughnut with salted caramelThe legendary pig ears have been re-tooled, and they’re just as good as ever, this time offered up with Campbell’s minty riff on Thai green papaya salad. Also from the appetizer section and not to be missed: an adorable Crab Mi roll festooned with pickled veggies, creating a luscious, crab-stuffed love child from a lobster roll and Vietnamese banh mi hookup.

It would be blissfully easy to live in these two sections of the menu alone, but trust me, you don’t want to miss the pasta section, particularly the features (maybe carrot-studded short rib tagliatelle, as comforting as beef stew, or pan-fried, potato-stuffed pierogi, overlaid with moist shreds of roasted guinea hen, pooled in light broth). And there’s no better bang-for-the-buck entrée than crispy, unctuous pork belly, slathered with chunky XO and set atop a creamy bed of golden polenta. In sum, raw or cooked, everything is delicious.

So Campbell’s instincts were right, after all, and to my mind, this far more adventurous incarnation better reflects the chef’s own decanting, slowly opening up to an edgier, more eclectic cuisine. Bottom line: Bar Pesce is for food freaks – lightweights need not apply.

BAR PESCE
Cuisine: Modern Seafood
Contact: 3603 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, 602-358-8666, barpesce.com
Hours: Tu-Sa, 5 -10 p.m.
Highlights: Swordfish belly crudo ($16); bluefin tuna crudo ($18); halibut tonnato crudo ($16); oysters with brown butter and XO ($3 each); Crab Mi roll ($16); pig ear salad ($12); featured pasta (price varies); pork belly with XO and polenta ($20).

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