By Chelsea Young, December 2015 Issue.
Tucked in the back of central Arcadia’s Gaslight Square sits Crudo, a (somewhat hidden) culinary gem with an impressive list of awards and accolades – especially for a restaurant that’s only been open three and a half years.
Although I’d stopped in for a cocktail before, I’d never experienced the full menu, so I finally decided to see what all the hype was about – and my recent visits left me wondering what took me so long.
Crudo, which means “raw” in Italian, is Chef Cullen Campbell’s unique concept of Italian-infused sashimi that’s offered alongside other modern Italian fare.
In addition to the crudo (raw) options, which are really at the heart of this dining experience, the menu also offers cotto (cooked), mozza (cheese) and griglia (grilled) selections, with the additions of antipasti and dessert.
But the cocktail menu is not to be overlooked. Here, award-winning mixologist and certified sommelier Micah Olson has designed classic and contemporary libations – using from-scratch ingredients, fresh herbs, house-made syrups and house-infused spirits (like grapefruit cinnamon syrup and Tapatio Reposado tequila, respectively) – for the more progressive pairings.
Upon stepping in from the cold (a relative statement in Arizona) into Crudo for dinner, I felt an instant sense of “home for the holidays,” which could absolutely be attributed in part to the time of year. With the perfect combination of dim lighting, votive candles adorning each table and comfy armchairs, can you blame me?
Even with the minimalist décor, industrial accents and elegant chandeliers, the atmosphere is warm, cozy and inviting.
The main dining area gives way to secluded, windowed alcoves – perfect for a more private setting for a small group. And through open double doors awaits Bar Crudo, the main hub’s cocktail-focused counterpart. You can still order the full menu in the bar, plus you can take advantage of happy hour prices. And, it’s fun to see Olson and his mixology crew craft drinkable works of art.
My dinner date and I were seated at a table in the main dining area, and were eager to start with a cocktail. I couldn’t resist the Square Garden, a combination of Square One botanical vodka, celery, jalapeño, mint, basil and lime, while my dinner date ordered the Scotch Baio, made with Bank Note Scotch, ginger, peach and lemon. Both cocktails, served over large, square chunks of ice and adorned with fresh mint (Square Garden) and a perfectly curled orange peel (Scotch Baio), were just as refreshing as they looked and as sophisticated as they sounded.
From there, we were both in agreement that the goal was to experience a variety of dishes, and luckily Crudo’s menu is conducive to sampling without overeating.
While we lingered over the tempting selection of entrees – which can be ordered a la carte or with coursing options of 3 for $35, 4 for $45 and 5 for $55 per person – we noshed on our carefully selected appetizers.
First up, crispy pig ears that had been fried, then soaked in slightly sweet vinegar and topped with spicy chili peppers. Our next selection was olive oil-whipped goat cheese with grilled beets. The flavors and textures all worked in perfect harmony together, and were an excellent companion to the cocktails.
For our entrees, we both decided on the coursing options, since this allows you to create any combination of your choosing from the menu. We were given a courteous heads up that these portions end up a bit smaller than if you order a la carte (but they ended up still being quite substantial).
My date chose the three-course option, but there was no way I could commit to less than four. We each selected a crudo – ahi and albacore – which were beautifully presented. Delicately placed in a line dividing the plate, the albacore was topped with thinly sliced grapefruit, olives and basil, while the ahi was dusted with a dry horseradish, dill and cured apple. The ahi was definitely a denser, meatier choice and since I love spice, I enjoyed the hint of horseradish.
For our mozza course, the decision was tough but we landed on the grilled mozzarella, which is pulled fresh daily, and the burrata. Each dish is served with grilled Noble bread, almost like a deconstructed bruschetta. Now, I’ve had a lot of cheese in my life, and I must say this is some of the freshest cheese I’ve ever had the privilege of tasting. Topped with arugula and small cubes of pancetta, the soft burrata was served in a generous pool of pancetta vinaigrette. The tanginess of the vinaigrette paired with the cheese (and bread) was unbelievable. The grilled mozzarella took a sweeter cue with tomatoes, dates and a balsamic reduction. I enjoyed both, of course, but the winner in my book was the burrata.
The cotto course, which consists of pastas, risotto and a market fish, was the course my date skipped. I, however, couldn’t resist the Semolina Gnocchi, with tender lamb neck, truffle, cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) and pear. While lamb has never been a must-order in my culinary ventures, this dish was a game-changer for me. Chef Campbell is a wizard with unique flavors; the sweetness of the pear, plus the truffle and very tender, shredded lamb was a brilliant combination.
For our final course (griglia), my date hunkered down with a generous portion of brisket and I selected the pork belly. My date raved that the brisket was the best, most tender brisket he’d ever had (and confessed to our server he was tempted to order another). The brisket was paired with beets, grilled onion, horseradish and yogurt, while the pork belly had accoutrements of smoked tomato agrodolce (a sweet and sour Italian sauce) and a bed of fluffy, flavorful polenta.
We were committed to trying dessert (Crudo’s offerings are courtesy of local confectionary Tracy Dempsey Originals), but decided we’d return another day when our stomachs could fully appreciate the decadent sweets.
And return we did. This time, we sat at the bar among the shaking and stirring of cocktails and the murmur of quiet conversations from the armchair seating nearby. We reordered the crispy pig ears and also noshed on smoked Castelvetrano olives; I paired these with the Violet Femme, a refreshing, bubbly drink made with Arizona Distilling Co. gin, cucumber, violet, lemon and sparkling wine.
And finally, for our much-awaited grand finale, we chose the Crostada for dessert. Reminiscent of a streusel, it had a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth crust decorated with apricot jam, goat cheese and a generous dollop of pistachio gelato, all drizzled with caramel. Paired with a cup of coffee, this hit the sweet spot and was entirely worth the wait.
After two visits and countless courses, I can confidently say Crudo is now on my list of go-to places – whether I feel like kicking back with a cocktail or exploring creative cuisine. Next up? You might find me spending a weekend morning lingering over Chef Campbell’s take on brunch.
3603 E. Indian School Road, Phoenix
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tues-Sat (happy hour: 5-7 p.m.) 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday brunch