What do you get when you take the see-and-be-seen vibe of AZ88, add the pulsating music and blinding white glamour of Asia de Cuba, and roll it all up in a futuristic sushi mat?
You get Pure, the chic new Japanese fusion restaurant that fits perfectly between its two neighbors at the Scottsdale Civic Center. It's the sister restaurant to the original Pure in North Scottsdale, and a welcome addition to the Old Town dining mix.
On a recent Friday night, Pure was bangin', crowded with pretty 30-somethings decked out for a night on the town, as well as some sophisticated older folks dressed as though they might've just stumbled from an art show at SMoCA. Electronic tracks by Goldfrapp and Thievery Corporation were on heavy rotation, chatty customers sipped sake-tinis, and half a dozen extremely busy sushi chefs manned the long, polished counter, facing a row of booths. Tables were packed in the dining room and on the patio. In the back, people hung out at a sleek bar, gazing at a row of flat-screen TVs. From the servers' uniforms to the pristine furniture, everything was bright white.
Without a doubt, this was one of the most scenester-y places I've been to in a while. But I don't hold that against it. It was fun, and the staff was refreshingly unpretentious. (I can't say the same about all the folks dining there, but it sure was good people-watching, and the crowd was much more relaxed during the week.) The style extended to the beautifully presented food as well, and for the most part, it tasted as delightful as it looked.
Sushi is the biggest lure at Pure, and it's mainly of the exotic specialty roll genre. You know the kind — overstuffed maki bursting with cucumber and crab mix (in almost every instance) and various kinds of fish, artfully embellished with even more stuff on top. Just one of these fat beauties could suffice as a light meal for some people, so if you're game to try a few, be sure to bring friends. (Just about everything I sampled came in a generous portion.)
When I asked if there were any sushi or sashimi specials and my waitress quickly said no, I realized that Pure might not be the kind of place to geek out on unusual kinds of fish. Still, the printed list of traditional items was fairly substantial, with two dozen nigiri selections. Tuna, albacore, and mackerel nigiri were pretty good, as was a traditional seaweed-wrapped yellowtail-scallion roll and a plate of fresh, buttery salmon sashimi.
But the ama ebi were noteworthy, not only because they're much less common at trendy sushi joints, but also because they were delicious — two compact balls of sushi rice topped with sweet raw shrimp, served along with the critters' crispy fried heads. I never get tired of that pairing, the clean taste and creamy flesh of the shrimp followed by deep-fried crunch.
While the traditional sushi was well prepared, the wacky rolls were really what Pure excelled at. I'm not always interested in such decadent creations, because I sometimes veer into sushi purist territory, but I dove into the specialty menu with an open mind.
I'm so glad I did — these novelties were both creative and scrumptious. The creamy baked lobster roll was ridiculously good, a sort of glorified California roll filled with lightly mayonnaise-y lobster mix and cucumbers. Each individual piece was topped with a slice of crispy lobster tempura and a dollop of creamy sauce, along with a drizzle of sweet eel sauce. My dining companions devoured it all. "Box sushi" was another luscious combination, with layers of tobiko-studded rice, salmon, and crab mix, topped with fresh tuna. Plated with jagged, bright green faux-leaves tucked between each rectangular piece, it was the best-looking sushi of the night.
Shiromi Lover's Roll was lighter and tangier, filled with spicy crab mix, cucumber, and asparagus, topped with thin slices of halibut, kiwi-yuzu sauce, and ponzu. Another interesting roll, the Fire Dragon, had spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and cucumber on the inside, and sliced tuna, cilantro, and jalapeño on the outside.
While I thought the tempura tasted good tucked inside those sushi rolls, I wasn't as jazzed about the tempura appetizer, a combo of tiger prawns and a tangle of julienned carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, and onions, served with a sweet soy dipping sauce. The batter was just too heavy for my taste. I was even more dismayed by the flash-fried jumbo soft-shell crab, cloaked in an overbearing panko breading that diminished the sweet, tender flesh of the crustacean.
If crunch is what you're looking for, go for the curried lobster spring rolls, served with tamarind sweet-and-sour sauce and a heap of mild green papaya slaw. The fried wrappers were golden and lightly crispy, the chunks of lobster were succulent, and the curry flavor was delicate. Similarly, a plate of yellowfin ahi and ripe avocado poke was faintly tinged with the mouthwatering taste of white truffle.
But the Korean barbecue grilled pork ribs weren't subtle in the least. Caramelized, smoky edges gave way to moist meat that was worth gnawing on. A side of Sichuan pepper-dusted sweet potato fries rounded out the plate, which was listed as a starter but would've made a fine main dish.
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They did have actual entrees, too. The hands-down winner was the roasted Hawaiian butterfish, marinated in Korean chili paste. It was super-moist, with luscious beurre blanc to balance out the spice. Coconut-infused forbidden black rice was a tasty, slightly sweet complement to the dish.
Top-notch pork tenderloin done up katsu-style (fried in a deep golden panko crust) was quite good, served with an unusual glaze made with black beans, blood orange, and sake. The brown rice pilaf paired with it didn't move me, though. And char-grilled jumbo prawns were simply disappointing — overcooked and rubbery, with simultaneously mushy and crunchy stir-fried soba noodles on the side. I stopped eating it and went back to chomping on a pork rib.
At the end of the meal, I tasted a hockey puck of too-dense green tea cheesecake (ehh) and a decent but oh-so-pedestrian chocolate lava cake, served with raspberry coulis and white chocolate sauce. For something sugary, it's probably safer to go with the ice cream.
Then again, I didn't mention the cocktail list. If you really need to satisfy your sweet tooth, an Asian pear martini or a lychee-lemon drop will likely suffice.