East of the Pacific, here in the American desert, you don’t usually notice rice when eating sushi unless that rice is bad. But at Across the Pond, the recently opened sushi and cocktail concept from the team behind Clever Koi, you notice the rice. It is good. Not good like fried rice is good. Good in a more modest way — a trace sweet, an echo of vinegar to reveal the spirit of the grains.
Alvaro Salinas makes the rice. Once it has cooked, he employs a circular wooden vessel, strategic towels, and his hands. They have the memory of rice worked into them. Before teaming with Nick Campisano and Joshua James, owners of Clever Koi, Salinas worked at Shimogamo in Chandler for more than a decade.
As you sit at the marble bar and the cocktail crowd eddies around you, Salinas works with slow precision, like somebody taking a test.
Like Clever Koi, Across the Pond serves Asian food and drink. With a sushi menu that fits onto a tiny card and a cocktail roster that spills onto many columns, the narrow space is more cocktail bar than anything else. The bones of the old Central Wine are apparent, for structural changes made between the wine shop’s closing and Across the Pond’s opening in the same Central Avenue space were mostly cosmetic. Gold ceiling. Foliage on the wallpaper. People kick it, linger. Often late into the night.
Across the Pond offers three kinds of sushi: hand rolls, sashimi, and nigiri. These are made using three fish: salmon, tuna, and yellowtail. Specials may increase the number of offerings by a third. James predicts the menu will expand over time, and it has already started to.
Two of the specials when I was recently in were nigiri (fish on top, rice ingot on bottom). A blush slice of amberjack curled over the neat angles of the rice, melting with a clean, cool, lightly marine flavor. Though a scallop nigiri showed tiny orange curry peaks, their spice volume was low, functioning more as a distant accent to the scallop. Both were austere. Both were nice.
The standard menu offers the same muted refinement. Plum-purple slices of tuna sashimi lean, looking dark and intense and uncommonly thick. They are smooth and clean. Gripping a hand roll, the mass of spicy salmon fell out of before I could take a bite. The roll was fine, the components not completely melded together, which becomes apparent as you get closer to the dryer bottom of the nori cone.
Across the Pond is across the walkway from Clever Koi. This bodes well for the cocktails, because Clever Koi crafts some great ones.
The cocktail menu brims with more compelling options than you could drink in a night or four. The Slippin’ Jimmy starts from a base of rum and pear brandy and solera sherry, unspooling into refined cherry zones of flavor. A drink made with Midori uses heavy tools to balance what you would expect to be a sweet cocktail — yuzu and Pernod, lime and Jamaican rum — making for lush sips more floral and herbaceous than sweet, a creamy froth always present until the drink isn’t.
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The crowd buzzes. People really get down with the cocktails. Drinkers seem to weigh their drinks, sipping and thinking, moving on to the next thought: maybe soft shell crab roll, one of the many specials that seem to fly out for the sushi bar. The sushi style may disappoint eaters expecting California rolls and zigzags of spicy mayo and other Western bombast, but this place isn’t really meant for them.
What Campisano and James have done, in essence, is open a place with a narrow focus. Across the Pond isn’t close to a full restaurant. It is a stop for a few simple but good bites before leaving to go somewhere else and eat more. It feels vaguely like a tapas bar that way.
Phoenix could use more places like this one.
Across the Pond. 4236 North Central Avenue, #101; 602-296-5629.
Wednesday through Saturday 4 p.m. to midnight.