Moira Sushi Bar: Downtown Phoenix Deserves a Better Japanese Restaurant

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It's no secret that Japanese food is my obsession. I've certainly written about it enough times, rapturously blogged about it, photographed it, and sought out ever more esoteric eats on my annual trips to Japan. My appetite for it is endless.

I've also been an enthusiastic fan and follower of Phoenix's downtown revitalization, writing and gossiping and picking people's brains about what kind of cool new things are cropping up in the heart of the city — especially restaurants. Since I happen to live and work close by, it's the ultimate convergence of personal and professional interests for me.

So you can already see where this is heading. There's a new sushi bar downtown — actually, the first sushi bar to crop up in downtown Phoenix in many years — and there's no way I'm not going to review it. Practically from the day it opened in late March, friends and New Times readers have been asking me for my take on Moira Sushi Bar & Kitchen.

Now here's the tricky part, the part where I feel a little bit like Jekyll and Hyde. The city girl in me likes the idea of it, but the sushi geek in me is far from thrilled. In the end, I'm not even sure how much I like it.

As Japanese restaurants go, Moira didn't blow me away in the least. Though I enjoyed some of the traditional Japanese sushi items, as well as some of the pan-Asian stuff, there wasn't any singular dish that I'd truly crave — nothing that transported my taste buds to some fantastic Tokyo hole in the wall.

Keep in mind, I'd gladly drive to the far reaches of the Valley for truly excellent Japanese cuisine — but selfishly, I was really hoping for something destination-worthy to open in my own backyard. And even as neighborhood sushi spots go, I've definitely had better. I'd eat here again, but only because it's the lone option for a raw fish fix in the area.

Which leads me to the flip side of my review. In spite of the so-so food, I still happen to like what Moira means for downtown. This block used to be so dark and quiet; now it's vibrant. The restaurant is an inviting place to hang out, grab a light bite, and meet with friends over a cucumber-infused cocktail or some cold sake. And speaking of alcohol, it's also a welcome twist in the bar-hopping mix down here, planted right around the corner from The Roosevelt and just a couple of blocks from Carly's as well as the Sens/PastaBar/Turf corner.

Located on the street level of a new-ish condo building on McKinley, Moira is sleek and modern, with an Asian twist — Chinese terracotta soldiers, carved Thai Buddhas, and contemporary Japanese red lanterns accent the concrete block-walled room, where a row of front windows reveals a stretch of sushi bar, glowing blue from below. Shiny silver Bertoia chairs and a huge stainless steel drop ceiling above the kitchen contrast with touches of dark wood throughout the dining room.

They've nailed the urban atmosphere. Service, though, is a little shakier. Friendly? No doubt. And in recent visits, I appreciated how the waitstaff asked for feedback on the food and drinks. One night's cocktail soaked with too much spicy jalapeño flavor was tempered on a subsequent visit, as if they'd finally refined the recipe. So the staff is trying, it seems. Really, it's simple things like checking in on customers consistently throughout the meal and keeping drinks refilled that need to be addressed.

The sushi menu combines trendy, unconventional sushi rolls, dressed up with different sauces and toppings, with the traditional rundown of fish available as sashimi, nigirizushi, or temaki. For me, one night's ultra-fresh, beautifully sliced yellowtail was the hands-down highlight. Fresh scallops, salmon, and generous pieces of eel, drizzled in sweet sauce, were also quite good, although the rice was a bit too soft. Mackerel, topped with grated ginger, wasn't bad, while tuna was strangely bland and sea urchin lacked that otherworldly sweetness that really sets good sea urchin apart from the run of the mill.

Among the rolls, I liked how fresh Thai basil jazzed up the Neo Tokyo (lotus, tuna, yellowtail, salmon, avocado, and yamagobo, wrapped in soy paper), and I thought cucumber, scallions, and avocado enhanced crispy tempura shrimp wrapped up in the Fuji roll, with creamy, spicy sauce on top. Less successful was the Aoki roll, which needed more wasabi mayo or more avocado to offset the dry-tasting shredded crab and lotus root.

I'd be more inclined to make a meal out of small plates here than the hot entrees, which struck me as pretty predictable Asian-fusion stir-fries. Strangely, mango-wasabi sauce in the veggie-laden Firecracker didn't have much kick, while the innocuous-sounding Roasted Orange, boosted with candied ginger and orange zest, was really spicy. I preferred the latter. Meanwhile, Pho Crunch disappointed me with its stingy portion of pan-fried noodles — so meager that at first glance I didn't think there were noodles in it at all.

Shrimp gyoza, a standard offering at many Japanese restaurants, had the requisite crispiness but a mushy filling, and its ponzu dipping sauce was seriously watered down. Lightly fried shumai dumplings, plump with fish and edamame, also suffered from watery mustard sauce. And I can't call the chilled hotate (scallops) or the tuna poke anything but bland — weak citrus sauce and tiny dots of chili sauce didn't save the scallops from tasting one-dimensional, while the poke totally lacked salt and the expected perfume of sesame oil.

Much more interesting were appetizers like lemongrass-tinged beef wrapped in grape leaves, served with hoisin-peanut sauce, and a whole fried soft shell crab teamed with Thai chili-kumquat marmalade. Renkon salad, another Southeast Asian-inspired dish, combined shredded lotus root, carrot, cucumber, and chunks of shrimp with Thai basil and puckery lime-ginger vinaigrette, while Moira's crudo was a crisp combination of cucumber and daikon sprouts wrapped in slices of yellowtail and brightened with ponzu.

Hate to say it, but it's not a good sign when some of the most interesting items at a sushi place are completely un-Japanese.

Phoenix deserves better.

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