And so in Bar Pesce, a restaurant evolved a step from its antecedent, you see, in the dim light of tall rooms, under music wrenching from club-like to down-tempo, some highly intriguing menu options. Pork belly with XO sauce. Shrimp crudo with yuzu in an Italian tonnato (tuna cream) sauce. Pig head. Gnocchi with snails.
It is this: Hit the smaller plates hard; let staff guide your drinks.
Bar Pesce’s starters and bar snacks tend to live up to the menu’s promise. A “crab mi” based on the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich consists mostly of a soft, warmed bun that smells like toasted marshmallow. Crab meat is cool and minimally treated, echoing a lobster roll, even if the banh mi elements fade into the background.
Though the ears are pitch-perfect, the first act peaks with crudo.
As expected, the starters section of the menu contains several raw-fish dishes. Both times I was in, the crudo dish I most wanted to try was no more. That in itself was fine. When you’re sourcing primo fish in the Sonoran, you are beholden to the whims of supply. But they could at least tell you shortly after you sit down, before your hopes rise.
In the availability roulette, I missed out on the shrimp crudo with yuzu and tonnato, a cool-sounding cultural basket-weave. But I was lucky overall: I got to try a swordfish crudo that changed the way I see my favorite fish.
At this point, though, your meal may have climaxed.
Entrees at Bar Pesce aren’t quite as inspiring. Where starters are bright and dexterous, mains tend to be a little clunkier. Gnocchi cacio e pepe with snails featured quarter-sized dumplings fluffier and tasting more of potato than most. But the sauce was more butter-and-cheese than the lively Roman staple, and the snails could have added more. Similarly, bass collar, one of the sexiest cuts on the fish, was on the dry side. Pork belly in XO sauce, though a balsamic-swirled sight on the plate, also was cooked beyond its optimal range.
Bar Pesce’s larger plates might be typified by its cioppino. Campbell gives the Italian-American fish stew a revamp, turning the usually tomato-based broth into one a little too dominated by one-note miso. Mussels are plump and nicely cooked. A square of whitefish on top has crisp skin and vivacious flesh. But the shrimp look to have simmered long, strung apart, and rubbered some. Crowning the stew, grilled bread that tastes sprayed with powdered charcoal is primal and delicious, but too much for delicate fish.
As at Crudo, drinks are strong. The bar program has been jazzed with 10 new cocktails. A grassy concoction of gin and parsley, Parsley My Fault, tastes ultra-fresh and nicely balanced, with the herb’s peppery essence boldly leading the way. A drink called Ritten in the Stars is similar to a black Manhattan, but with a trace of chocolate and dark jam coming from fig bitters. During happy hour, a citrus-forward txakoli costs just $6 ... and somehow lifts the swordfish even higher than the dill does.
Also as at Crudo, the low-key vibe bar is the centerpiece and best place to eat. Here, you can soak in ambient tunes and talk about cocktails with the bartenders if you want. Though the bar is great, one of the best ways to approach it is as a starting line, incorporating fried and raw delights into a longer nocturnal run of eating and drinking.
The name of Campbell’s eatery hasn’t changed much, and neither has its concept. The place looks the same. The sign outside still reads, to the concrete world, “Crudo.” As dishes rapidly cycle to and from the menu, and as Campbell continues to probe the outlying boundaries of his concept, entrees may gain more consistency with starters. You feel attachment to the old concept, but at the same time wish for a more complete metamorphosis. Whatever happens, Bar Pesce is a place to celebrate audacity, sip solid drinks, and eat a stellar dish or two.
3603 East Indian School Road
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday 5 to 10 p.m.
Parsley My Fault $11
Fried pig ear $6
Swordfish crudo $16
Crab mi roll $16
Biscuit doughnut $6