Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: A New Phoenix Classic Gets a Reboot at Bar Pesce

Cioppini, swordfish crudo, and a grassy cocktail at Bar Pesce.
Cioppini, swordfish crudo, and a grassy cocktail at Bar Pesce. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
One of the more fun and daring menus in town can be found at Bar Pesce, called Crudo until late 2018. After six years of serving fish-forward modern Italian from the back of an Arcadia strip mall, chef Cullen Campbell decided to stay put physically but veer culinarily from Italian roots to other seacoasts of the world, namely Asia.

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.

click to enlarge The dining room at Bar Pesce. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The dining room at Bar Pesce.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Against the Phoenician grain, Campbell’s menu at Bar Pesce seems to totally eschew safe options. He doesn’t mess with mass trends, or what people want in general. He seems to just serve what he wants to, as he did at Crudo, but more so, almost in the vein of Steve Jobs, who once said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Ultimately, his Italian-Asian flavor swirling, which only touches some dishes, works to varying degrees. There is a calculus to this, an easy astrolabe for navigating to dishes that will enhance your mood and day.

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.

click to enlarge "I got to try a swordfish crudo that changed the way I see my favorite fish." - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
"I got to try a swordfish crudo that changed the way I see my favorite fish."
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Fried pig ears, a rollover from Crudo, remain a bodacious snack for booze. The strips have an iota of chew after their massive crunch. Some salty bites are charged with spicy rings of pickled pepper. As you near the bottom of your bowl, the vinegar pooled low soaks the nest of strips more and more, making them better.

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.

click to enlarge Chef Campbell gives the Italian-American fish stew a revamp with Bar Pesce’s cioppino. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Chef Campbell gives the Italian-American fish stew a revamp with Bar Pesce’s cioppino.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Cooked, swordfish takes on a steak-like heft and a fragrant, buttery nature. These qualities are latent in raw swordfish, and Campbell manages to coax out its shy character. An ivory heap of cubed, chilled swordfish shines with grassy olive oil, lime juice, shallots, and faint jalapeno: components of leche de tigre, a Peruvian ceviche marinade. Halved grapes add tiny, darkly sweet bursts. Everything joins forces to tame pungent fronds of dill, completing a flashbang picture of some idyllic seaside garden.

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.

click to enlarge The Parsley My Fault cocktail — a grassy concoction of gin and parsley. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The Parsley My Fault cocktail — a grassy concoction of gin and parsley.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The solution: Tread carefully with entrees; focus on starters and drinks.

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.

click to enlarge For dessert? The biscuit doughnut. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
For dessert? The biscuit doughnut.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
When thinking about Bar Pesce, it is worth learning or remembering that the Italian word pesce means fish. And that “crudo,” the Italian word, refers to a category of raw-fish dishes.

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.

Bar Pesce
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
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy