Photography by Rob Ballard
Much more than a sit-down version of Claudio Urciuoli’s original seafood counter on 24th Street, this swank Downtown charmer ventures into excitingly global territory.
Standing on the busy city sidewalk outside Pa’La Downtown, I wonder for a second if I’m in the right place. It’s nothing like the original Pa’La Wood-Fired Cooking on 24th Street, a cozy historical cottage almost Zen-like in its spareness. Under the same ownership – star chef Claudio Urciuoli and restaurateur Omar Alvarez – the refurbished two-story space exudes a sexy, retro-industrial vibe and caters to the kind of young, upscale diners who demand craft cocktails and all the other amenities attached to a full-service restaurant.
Those hip urbanites get their wish here – along with a slightly manic atmosphere. But I’m not complaining, not when the food is often so crazy-good.
Black-and-white photos of coastal Italy reference Urciuoli’s upbringing in Liguria, but Downtown is helmed by executive chef Jason Alford, a 10-year veteran of Roka Akor, a small intercontinental fleet of tony Japanese restaurants famous for sushi and charcoal cooking on a robata grill. Alford shares Urciuoli’s predilection for seafood and his commitment to simplicity, and the two collaborate on Downtown’s bigger, broader menu, which features weekly items such as Urciuoli’s signature tapas, a few pizzas and a short list of entrées and veggies. Meanwhile, a large chalkboard menu displays daily changing items in every category, including a pasta or two. Many are given Japanese or Middle Eastern inflection (sometimes a mashup of the two), which marks a fundamental departure from Urciuoli’s purist approach.
My companion and I are here for the seafood on which both chefs hang their toques, and we begin with Beau Soleil oysters, bright and cucumber-y without the brininess often associated with Atlantic oysters. Dabbed with a Chardonnay-splashed mignonette of chunky green za’atar (a Middle Eastern herb blend), Moroccan mint and Japanese shiso, they’re light and wonderfully herbal, lifting the palate rather than drowning it in vinegar-heavy American mignonette. Urciuoli’s legendary boquerones (mild, pickled white anchovies, sprinkled with togarashi) are as simple and delicious as ever, still served with those biscuity, fennel-laced crackers I could eat by the dozen. Sea of Cortez shrimp, zapped with togarashi and nestled in a soft, sweet stew of red bell peppers and onions (called peperonata), are wonderful too, as are seared za’atar-sparked scallops, set atop an impossibly lush green apple-miso sauce that captures the essence of green apples with a backbone of salt from the miso.
However, scallop crudo – dusted with lemony sumac and plated with Santa Barbara uni, shaved fennel and tomato – is inexplicably bland and disappointing, which is odd, given that seared scallops with fennel and tomato is such a likeable Italian standby. The excellent uni is not to blame, but we’re equally lukewarm about an uni-chicharrón combo (the uni perched atop crackly pork rind in a riff on chips and dip) that borders on far-fetched. Why overpower delicate uni, the ocean’s foie gras, with funky, snacky chicharrón?
Bonito sashimi, on the other hand, splashed with garlicky ponzu and strewn with chives, is more traditional and far more pleasing, the rich, mackerel-like flavor of the fish enough to satisfy.
We’re back to classic Italian with burratina (small burrata), prosciutto, Campari tomato and Urciuoli’s light, spongy focaccia, edible proof that familiarity sometimes breeds content.
Another winning classic follows: Saltspring mussels, afloat in a garlicky, brick-colored broth chunky with tomatoes and spicy Italian sausage. Hunks of focaccia are provided for dunking, and when nothing is left but that ambrosial broth, we’re tempted to drink it from the bowl.
Alford bends yet another Italian classic: oven-roasted octopus with potato, celery, picholine olives and capers, giving this warm salad-like mélange a splash of yuzu and setting it atop a puddle of silky celery root miso. Wow! It’s simple and elemental, tasting of earth, salt and char.
There’s also perfect pizza – airy and crisp, chewy and charred – topped with a compelling assemblage of house-ground prosciutto, miso pesto, red onion, arugula, pecorino and Parmesan. Clearly, Alford has picked up a few tips from Urciuoli, one of the city’s best pizzaiolos.
And then come mains. Argentine New York Strip, cooked over the Japanese white charcoal called binchotan, tastes bland and chewy, surprisingly subpar for a restaurant that prides itself on sourcing. The dish is partially redeemed by accompaniments of chimichurri and root vegetables. However, entrée No. 2 – crunchy-topped Japanese seabream (called madai) blackened over binchotan – is spectacular, served with bouncy fregola (akin to Israeli couscous) roasted turnips, limequats and chimichurri. We’re too full to appreciate the fancy desserts that follow (mascarpone cheesecake with yuzu curd and banana-maple-date cake), but we’re grateful for that final rush of sweetness.
I still maintain that Pa’La Downtown engenders culture shock for Urciuoli fans who dig his culinary asceticism, but that’s because Downtown is really Alford’s baby. With its edgy upstairs art installations and head-spinning, classics-gone-wild menu, it’s global and modern in a way that the original Pa’La was never meant to be. Lucky for us, the differences between the two leave us with a richer dining landscape.
Cuisine: Italian-Japanese Seafood
Contact: 132 E. Washington St., Phoenix, 602-368-3052, palakitchen.com
Hours: Tu-Th 11 a.m.-9 p.m., F-Sa 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Highlights: Oysters (MP); octopus with potato and olive ($16); mussels with Italian sausage ($18); shrimp with peperonata ($12); scallops with green apple-miso ($18); pizza ($14-$16)
BONUS: Claudio Urciuoli, co-owner and chef at Pa’La Wood-Fired Cooking, joins us on this episode of Desert Digest to discuss the latest news in Valley dining.