We must have been too busy this spring, because Arizona Restaurant Week just sprang up on us this year. We had to scramble to get a reservation and to get Mrs. P Chef on board. At the last minute, we were able to get a table at Little Cleo’s, which has been written up and raved about all year.
Truth be told, I have not been a big fan, personally, of many of the Sam Fox Restaurants’ concepts. I know that they are popular and do a booming business, but to me they all (Sauce, Olive & Ivy, Blanco, North, etc.) somehow just miss. If forced to put a finger on the problem with the group, it seems like a lack of authenticity and/or too much passion for lucre.
Sam Fox never killed my baby seal, insulted my Prius or fought with my Honor Student (if we were so lucky), so I don’t know what I have against the group, except that maybe it just isn’t for me. If doing Pizza, I prefer Le Gran Orange, Pomo, Pizzaria Bianco, etc. There are places that have something vibrant and real about them.
That being said, AZ Restaurant Week felt like a perfect opportunity to see if there was anything to the plaudits being heaped on Little Cleo’s Seafood Legend. That fact that the seafood choices in this desert town are slim pickings, argued for a new addition to the roster, which mostly tended towards homecooking, and sushi places like Roka Akur, Sushi Roku, Hana Japanese Eatery, Yazu Sushi, etc. Most of the other very good choices, many served by refrigerated delivery from Santa Monica Seafoods out of LA, were painfully overpriced. It took a modicum of self-reflection, and a few phone calls before everything fell into place.
The Restaurant Week Menu was broken down into 3 sections: Small Plates & Veggies, Large Plates, and Desserts. The small plates choices were Clam Chowder, Crispy Frog Legs, Grilled Octopus and Black Kale Salad. We opted for the Octopus and the Kale Salad. A half dozen oysters also made the cut, as did the house made “bacon & eggs,” made with house made sturgeon. The octopus was well cooked, a plus, but skimpy on the protein (3-4 small cephalopods) and heavy on the distracting cheaper clutter (fried masa, hush puppies, watercress, charred serrano). At $10 on the normal menu, I see the economics but the purist in me balks at the misdirection.
The kale salad was all it could be and Mrs. P Chef put it away quickly. The oysters at MP, were a dissappointment to someone hoping to rave about seafood. The Pacific Northwest or Maine was on my mind as I pictured the oysters on the half shell as I heard that they were actually serving Luna Oysters from Carlsbad Aqua Farm in the lavish iced presentation. Carlsbad is nice but not something to write home about. It was the same with the near-local oysters. They were a nice change but not worthy of a ton of ink.
The house made sturgeon bacon was novel and a great item that I could get behind, if only it were not cut so wafer thin and saddled with the bread, egg and creme fraiche as filler and distractions. See it above under the egg and topping the bread. I would have preferred, at $12, the pure experience. And so went the meal.
Grilled Ahi Tuna, for Mrs. P Chef was nice. As Jon Favreau’s character, Chef Carl Casper puts in Chef, and I am paraphrasing, “how do you go wrong with Ahi Tuna? Its safe. It sells.”
Honoring the large plate item that was pushing the norms, a bit, I could only choose the “bouillabaisse.” Overall, I liked the direction of the dish, but I was also very glad that I did not pay the regular $24 price for the privilege. The ONE scallop was good. Did you notice it there on top, prominently displayed, hinting at a few more friendly scallops below? If I were cynical, I would suspect that the lone scallop was placed there with precision, even though the menu clearly states “scallops.” But who needs cynicism? I choose to chalk it up to the vaguaries of the ladle.
The substantial pieces of bread, imitating large pieces of grilled fish, were also very crunchy and flavorful, but NOT ACTUALLY FISH. A Bouillabaisse is a fisherman’s fish stew from Marseilles which was developed as a way to avoid wasting the bony rock fish they hauled in. What the trash fish lacked in quality, was made up for with quantity. It would not be unreasonable to have .75 pounds to 1 pound of fish per person served in a Bouillabaisse recipe. The seafood in the dish was principally the shrimp (which was overcooked and, in my opinion, of less than stellar quality) and the mussels (which were servicable). Though it wasn’t listed on the menu description, I believe that there were also some nubs of Salmon in the mix.
The lack of abundance of seafood also was one of the reasons that I imagine that the broth was thinner than expected. The other was likely the absense of Olive Oil, Thyme and Bay (stalwarts of Provençal cooking) in the soup base. The menu lists Saffron & Fennel, but not Garlic, Onions, Olive Oil, Thyme or Bay. For the life of me, I swear that I tasted Garlic but not the complexity, richness and depth of flavor I was seeking, so I must attribute this to missing ingredients. The good news, if there is any, is that on the Restaurant Week budget, I was only disappointed, not totally out of sorts.
If I were to go back to Little Cleo’s, I’d stay away from the, in my opinion, value engineered menu and order a fresh fish special which may be pricier but will also be more dificult game.