I am an East Coast girl, born and raised. There are certain things I miss about living in Erie, Pennsylvania — the explosive colors of fall leaves, the smell of Concord grapes perfuming the air, and fresh fish at the ready.
Without an ample supply at their fingertips because of the high price to fly in fresh fish, many chefs in the Valley lack a repertoire of inspired seafood dishes. An occasional special on a menu or fish brought in previously frozen is often the most prevalent dining option. As fish places pop up, I approach them with caution and hesitancy.
The first thing that struck me as I walked into Cuttlefish — one of the city's newest fishcentric offerings — was a semicircle of Vespas, with turned seats, lining the raw bar. My eye was drawn up the creamy wood detail on the walls to the crisply colored glossy teal tiles mimicking water. The modern space is light and airy, anchored by dark wood tables and booths. There are touches of raw metal sculpted into room dividers, made up of links of half-moons, reminiscent of fish scales.
As dinner seats are taken and live musicians perform on the bar side of the restaurant, the bright overhead bulbs are dimmed to create a cozy dining space. This sleek seafood joint feels like the modern rebirth of the stale seafood restaurant from our childhoods. No buoys or fish nets strung up here.
Cuttlefish was opened in late 2013 by chef Joey Maggiore, whose father is famed Phoenix chef and restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore. Joey returned to Phoenix from California after working at his family restaurants there and appearing on The Food Network's Family Style, which spotlighted Joey and his sister as they opened their new concept, Tommy V's, in Carlsbad. The show is over, but Joey and his wife, Christina, have kept busy — not only opening Cuttlefish but also a burger joint in the same plaza called Notorious Burgers.
While Cuttlefish's servers were friendly, well-versed on the menu, and ready to suggest favorites, I found them to be slow with service. On a busy night, it is understandable. As the solo diner in the restaurant, I find it sad to have to ask the runner bringing bread to check on my glass of wine, ordered 15 minutes earlier.
In terms of the food itself, it was a mixed bag, but I did find a lot to love.
My favorite dish was the seared scallops with gnocchi: three scallops (slightly smaller than a half dollar), tender and pliable on the inside, crisply seared on the outside, and topped with a bit of smoky sweet apricot. Between the scallops were light pillows of gnocchi with just a whisper of a brown butter sauce, allowing both the scallops and the gnocchi to shine in this dish. I just wish there were one or two more scallops on this entrée portion.
I could dive head first into the Clam Chowder "Pot Pie," which arrived roaring hot in a small-handled pot with a thick slab of golden pastry bobbing on top. It was difficult to get a piece of the flaky crust in each bite because the pastry was so difficult to cut through. However, underneath was a rich, creamy stew full of pudgy clams and hearty bits of potato. I scraped the bottom to get every last bit of the chowder and fought my dining companion over the last clam.
The Italian shrimp and grits featured perfectly cooked and seasoned blackened prawns atop a bed of polenta, doused with olive oil and garnished with fennel fronds. The polenta was too chunky and not creamy enough, but it had good flavor, especially when eaten with a bite of the prawns.
The verlasso salmon, flown in from Patagonia, is one of the first salmon farm-raised in the ocean. The salmon was moist and flavorful, and the meat was tender while the skin was crispy and shattered under tooth, giving it a brilliant texture combination. A lemon and white wine reduction was a beautiful backdrop, soaked up by pliable artichokes. Crisp capers rounded out the dish.
The Adriatic fish stew was ambitious: a sea of sturgeon, salmon, prawns, mussels, and clams floating about in saffron herb broth. At $18, it's a costly lunch option for one person, but it can be split easily between two people. At my server's suggestion, I added linguini, which did an amazing job of sopping up the broth whose drops of fat caused beautiful ripples on the surface. The housemade pasta had a nice al dente bite.
With the stew, I felt I'd won the fish lottery, but the maccheroni alla chitarra was a rip-off. Two prawns and some pasta for the lunch portion made my wallet weep. Though the lemony sauce, tossed with basil and cherry tomatoes, was light and lovely, the lack of protein made for a sad lunch, especially given the cost ($19).
The lobster ravioli, presented as five jet-black half-moon pockets, would make an excellent second course to split but is too small as an entrée for one. Cuttlefish ink pasta, made in-house and stuffed with chubby bits of lobster, creamy mascarpone, and ricotta, was drizzled with a rich yet not heavy lobster reduction and garnished with fennel fronds. The pasta was perfectly cooked in the center of the pocket, yet it was almost crunchy where crimped closed, making it difficult to enjoy the beautiful flavor of the lobster and the reduction.
The lump crab and shrimp salad was beautifully described on the menu, but it was a miss on the plate. Vibrant piles of Bibb lettuce created a base for pink shrimp that didn't really add distinct flavor when combined with the crab and the creamy chile dressing. Part of the reason I ordered this salad was for the soft egg, which unfortunately turned out to be hard-boiled. The toasted herb bread crumbs did add a great crunch to the salad.
Spicy tuna pops sounded like an exciting appetizer option but were a letdown. Albacore tuna cured in limoncello piqued my interest but was overpowered by a blob of Sriracha aioli. Its cuttlefish ink waffle cone (not made in-house) had zero flavor, and a sparse sprinkle of black sesame seeds topped the "pops."
Approach the desserts at Cuttlefish at your own risk. Overall, the desserts I tried lacked composition and balance, with the exception of a divine $5 bowl of three crimson scoops of blackberry Cabernet sorbet (they call it gelato) that was amazingly balanced, sweet yet tart, and had a deep, rich note from the Cabernet.
Tiramisu featured three small bites of a toothachingly sweet and creamy filling and ladyfingers that begged for more espresso. The pastry was attached to the plate with Nutella, which threw off the entire flavor as my spoon cut through. A couple of shards of caramel and a strawberry were strewn on the plate for garnish.
Neapolitan panna cotta consisted of three layers of strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla panna cotta in a pint glass. Though the texture was spot on for a panna cotta (creamy and not too gelatin-stiff), the large vanilla layer lacked vanilla flavor. The dessert needed a bit of crunch to cut up the monotony.
Finally, when I am paying $9 for a dessert, please top it with fresh whipped cream. The flat glop on there tasted like refrigerator and not a fluffy mound of fatty cream.
With a cozy, contemporary dining room and impressive fish quality, Cuttlefish ups the ante of fish options in metro Phoenix. With more attention to detail, Cuttlefish could make an East Coaster feel welcome in the Valley of the Sun.