When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Walrus & The Pearl
Location: 915 N Central Ave., Phoenix
Open: About six weeks
Eats: Raw bar, oysters, champagne
It's been about two months since the highly-anticipated DeSoto Central Market opened its doors to the public. Originally billed as a market and dining hub for downtown Phoenix, DeSoto has so far emerged as more of an upscale food court than anything else — largely due to the fact that there isn't yet any "market" to speak of.
Nevertheless the eclectic assortment of restaurants in the space right now have been met with much success, in particular chef Stephen Jones' Southern-inspired eatery, Yard Bird + The Larder. Though Yard Bird is Jones' proprietary restaurant, the chef also oversees all the dining concepts inside the DeSoto Market — to include the most upscale dining option in the place, a raw bar called Walrus & The Pearl.
On the day we visited the raw bar there were four types of oysters on the menu as well as two raw seafood dishes — an ahi tuna poke and hamachi crudo. We were happy to learn that happy hour deals from 3 to 6 p.m. throughout the week bring the prices of the oysters down to either $1 or $2 a piece, though the $13 and $15 price tags on the crudo and poke respectively seemed a little high for the casual atmosphere.
We started with a pair of small Beausoleil oysters, probably the most approachable of all four varieties we tried. These oysters offered a clean, salty flavor that reminded us of fresh ocean air. Compared to these, the slightly larger North Point oysters offered a much more robust level of salt. On the upside the North Point oysters' high salinity made for a nice pairing with a glass of the Poema Cava sparkling rose ($8).
In addition to a selection of five sparkling wines (though only four are available by the glass), Walrus & The Pearl offers four wines and four beers. The sparkling rose made a nice enough pairing for the price, though bigger spenders can opt for other by-the-glass choices that range from $13 to $24 a pour.
Our least favorite of the oysters was by far the Hood Canal variety. At about twice the size of the other varieties, these oysters were meaty and sweet with almost fruit-like qualities.
We finished with a couple of ever-popular Kumamato oysters, which are small but sought after for their sweet but briny flavor. We tried one plain, but also used the Kumie as a tester for the restaurant's mignonette; made with a base of red wine vinegar that's spiked with shallots, it was a simple but enjoyable addition to the mix.
The Walrus' hamachi crudo, which featured thinly sliced yellowtail and avocado dressed in olive oil and squid ink, was fine but didn't wow. The dramatic black color of the squid ink made it a handsome dish, but it leaned on Sriracha for flavor and thus, fell a little flat.
Throughout our meal the staff offered little guidance about the food (though they did their best to answer questions when we asked), but the biggest flaw with the raw bar might simply be its design. Located in a corner of the market — a corner that also doubles as a walkway between the front and back of the building — the space feels unfinished and a little out of place. The handwritten menu displaying the daily menu looked temporary instead of chic, and the bare bones decor lacks a welcoming vibe.
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In the end, while we love the option of enjoying a luxurious meal of oysters and champagne at this downtown spot, we'd prefer to do so in a place that feels, well, luxe.