First Dish: Hai Noon

Nikki BuchananJune 19, 2023
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2020 and 2021 were dark days not only because of the pandemic but what the pandemic wrought. Phoenix lost many great restaurants in those years, including two of its most esteemed venues for Japanese cuisine — Yasu Hashino’s Yasu Sushi Bistro (2020) and Nobuo Fukuda’s Nobuo at Teeter House (2021). Losing two of the city’s preeminent Japanese chefs was devastating.

Rumor has it that Hashino has left the restaurant industry entirely, but, after a stint with an international food import company that took him to every corner of his native Japan, Fukuda is back in town and back in action at Hai Noon in South Scottsdale. Hai Noon is a slender, atmospheric bar attached to a recently renovated, ’60s-era motor lodge (the old Papago Inn), renamed Sonder the Mariposa. I’m happy and excited about his return to the sushi bar and kitchen, and after a mind-blowing meal there a few days ago, I’ve got a feeling this iteration will be Fukuda’s most successful yet.

Given the punny name (hai means “yes” in Japanese), you’d think incorrigible punster Peter Kasperski (Fukuda’s former partner in Sea Saw) was somehow involved, but nope, this time Fukuda has joined with Welcome Diner owner Sloane McFarland and WD’s chef Ian Rosales to create a relaxed, vaguely hip hangout for Japanese-inflected cocktails, sushi and enough wildly creative small plates to constitute a belt-busting multi-course meal. Yes, you’re sitting in a cozy, dimly lit bar, but bar food this is decidedly not.

Like its name, which alludes to classic Western movies, the restaurant’s logo — a bonsai tree with the arms of a saguaro growing out of it — conveys Hai Noon’s intent: to create a Southwestern/Sonoran-slanted version of the extraordinary East-meets-West cuisine for which Fukuda, a 2007 James Beard award winner, is already famous.

Naturally, cocktails align with the restaurant’s fusion-y premise, and the Honey Dew Me Rumchata is a perfect example. Garnished with frozen melon balls, sprinkled with cinnamon and rimmed with cinnamon-flecked sesame powder, it’s essentially a rum-spiked horchata made with Japanese rice and honeydew syrup ($15). The Calpico, named for Japan’s iconic yogurt-based soft drink, falls somewhere between a Gin Fizz and a Gin Buck, a tangy refresher combining gin, lemon, yuzu juice, calpico, ginger syrup and soda water. I can think of precious few places in town offering cocktails this sophisticated for $15.

Meanwhile, a few of Fukuda’s beloved signature dishes from his former restaurants — Sea Saw and Teeter House — are found here, including big eye tuna set in a ruby swirl of roasted beet puree and Pinot Noir reduction ($20). The sauce’s sweet, earthy notes harmonize beautifully with the meaty richness of the fish. It’s just a little something Fukuda dreamed up in his experimentation with sushi and wine pairings back in the Sea Saw days.

Fukuda’s equally famous sockeye salmon, topped with Parmesan shaves, is here too, the plate drizzled with lemon and lime zest-sparked basil-mint oil and a thick, sweet mixture of soy sauce and balsamic reduction. The dish has an Italian vibe I’ve always loved ($20). Then there’s yellowtail, wrapped around grapefruit supremes and buttery avocado for a lilting taste of the Southwest ($16). Pork belly bao buns, once offered at lunch at Teeter House, make their appearance too, the sweetness of the pork balanced by sheaves of pickled mustard greens ($8). I still love them.

Although Fukuda has wisely kept a handful of his greatest hits to satisfy the nostalgists, he’s also cranking out plenty of new dishes to draw in a new audience of thrill-seekers. Case in point: two new sashimi dishes I’ve already added to my favorites list. One is kelp-cured seabream, lightly torched along the thicker side, then scattered with yuzu zest and salt-pickled cherry blossoms ($18). Its dense, silky texture is downright luxurious. Another is silver-edged amberjack, served ceviche-style (which is to say, quickly marinated in lime juice), loosely wrapped around a shiso leaf and a slip of myoga (Japanese ginger), then festooned with feathery shredded taro for crunch ($16). The combo — sweet fish, fiery ginger and cool, minty shiso —is stellar.

If you’re a Japanese food fan, you’ve probably had sunomono a hundred times, but never have you had Japanese pickles like these. Crunchy slivers of watermelon radish, fashioned like a rose, and strewn with sesame seeds are bolstered with nubbins of sliced Japanese cucumber, both veggies pickled in a vinaigrette that includes wasabi, umeboshi (pickled plum) and a drop or two of dashi (Japan’s all-purpose seaweed- and bonito flake-based stock). Fukuda’s version goes beyond the usual sweetness, tang and crunch to offer an undertow of round umami flavor, which surely comes from the dashi ($10).

The next course — dainty bites of small, sweet Japanese eggplant — offers another example of an everyday dish transformed into something exceptional. Tiny half-moon slices, baked until their exteriors are crisp, their interiors melting, are daubed with rich, sticky bacon miso, each round topped with one tiny sliver of the white interior of a green onion ($10). Simple and sublime. Crunchy panko-fried tofu skewers clustered around a green papaya slaw bathed in mild Japanese-style curry are Hai Noon’s elevated version of bar snacks, and I love them ($14).

I’m completely stuffed by the time we get to the softshell crab sandwich, but I’m not immune to its charms. Crunchy golden-brown crab legs poke out from brownish pads of house-made focaccia imbued with sesame oil, sesame seed, soy and onion. The bread is incredible, a savory foil for sweet crab meat and a smear of fiery kanzuri aioli. Kanzuri, Fukuda explains, is an artisanal red chile paste buried in the snows of Northern Japan, where it develops the slightly funky flavor of fermentation ($16).

Can you see the painstaking attention to detail in every dish, and have you noted the astonishingly affordable prices, given the quality and creativity evident at every turn? Do we even deserve Nobuo Fukuda?

While you ponder that one, I should mention there’s more to come. Omakase is in the works and should be available at Hai Noon in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a larger, light-filled space beyond the bar will be transformed into Hidden Gem, a casual restaurant for both hotel guests and the public to grab coffee and pastries in the morning (picture seasonal fruit scones, sourdough cinnamon rolls and a few Japanese-inspired sweets), which will likely open as a practice pop-up later this summer. Over time, the restaurant will evolve, eventually offering brunch and quick, easy lunches built around rice bowls and the like. It’s all a work in progress.

To my mind, the bigger takeaway is that Fukuda is turning out brilliant, affordable food at Hai Noon (the most elevated piece of the operation), and that he and his team are doing a fabulous job right out of the gate. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from one of the city’s greatest talents.

Sonder the Mariposa, 7017 E. McDowell Rd., Scottsdale,