- 215 E. McKinley, Suite 102, Phoenix, AZ, 85004
- Overall User Rating:
- (1 rating)
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To call new Moira Sushi Bar & Kitchen a routinely good neighborhood Japanese restaurant is not quite the unenthusiastic compliment it may seem to be.
That's because the neighborhood is downtown Phoenix. And the words "downtown Phoenix" and "good neighborhood Japanese restaurant" have never before appeared in the same sentence.
Moira takes its name from the three Greek goddesses of Fate, who spin, apportion and cut the thread of life that measures our years. Its destiny is in the hands of Tony Van and Linda Nguyen, who believe downtown diners—residents, students, workers, eventgoers, light-rail riders, conventioneers—are hungry for affordable Japanese fare in a cool, urban environment.
Young, urban vibe: Moira is set on the ground floor of a new condo development, as in a real city. Inside, the room bristles with youthful energy, with blue light glowing from the bottom of the bar, red globes dangling from the ceiling and piped-in music that gets louder as it gets later.
The energy extends to the beverage list. Along with wine, beer, sake and shochu, the crowd keeps its spirits up with kyuri (Japanese cucumber) cocktails ($9). The chu-cucumber, made with sweet-potato shochu, crushed cucumber, triple sec and lime juice, and the sakeittomee, put together with raspberry sake, lime juice and muddled cucumber, are very 21st century.
Rice sinks the sushi: Despite the restaurant's name, sushi is not Moira's principal focus. Good thing, too, because it's the least distinguished part of the menu. The problem is not the fish—the tuna ($5), yellowtail ($5), mackerel ($6), salmon ($5), squid ($6) and octopus ($6) all fall into the "not bad" to "OK" spectrum of the sushi parabola. And several makimono (sushi rolls) show spunk, including the cleverly arranged neo Tokyo ($14), with tuna, yellowtail, salmon, lotus root and yamagobo (burdock root), all accented with Thai basil and wrapped in soy paper; the aoki ($12), with snow crab, tuna tataki, lotus root, cucumber and avocado; and the kamikaze ($12), with yellowfin, salmon and flying-fish roe bound with spicy mayo.
The problem is the rice, heavy, gummy and dry all at the same time. In Japan, the rice part of the sushi is at least as important as the fish. Moira needs to close the gap between the two components.
Hits and misses: Order right, and Moira almost morphs from a restaurant you go to because you're already downtown to a restaurant you might go downtown for. The izakaya (Japanese-tavern small plates) menu section sports a quartet of winners. The don't-miss item is tuna tartare and lotus-root crisps with a sweet-soy glaze ($7), whose crispiness and lush flavors add up to more than the sum of the parts. Whoever thought to describe the calamari as "crackling" instead of "fried" deserves lexicographical credit. The adjective is not only alliterative; it also makes the dish sound especially tempting. And the calamari ($7) is as good as it sounds, fetchingly supported by a spicy shiitake soy sauce. Like the tuna tartare and calamari, tempura vegetables ($6) won't win any points for originality. But the kitchen puts out a handsome assortment that includes baby corn and squash blossom, and the batter is light and greaseless. If you do want something off the beaten path, there's Vietnamese-inspired stuffed grape leaves filled with meat ($7), which you dip into a terrific hoisin peanut sauce.
But other izakaya dishes don't show much life. It takes more than a spicy aioli to revive the terminally moribund confetti shrimp ($7)—you need a defibrillator. Chile yuzu dressing doesn't make a chilled scallop ($6) interesting. And though the menu says it's panko-crusted soft-shell crab ($7), the tasteless crunchy blob under the breading could have been anything.
That same hit-or-miss quality afflicts the "hot kitchen" stir-fries, which have a pan-Asian theme. (You choose the protein, all good quality: chicken, beef or tofu. Shrimp and scallops are $3 extra.)
Kareh raisu ($13) is a rich, intensely seasoned red curry, whose fragrances—coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and chile—sing in three-part harmony. Another top-notch sauce is roasted orange ($11), with its notes of candied ginger and spicy citrus zest. And the earthy mushroom sauce poured over the pho crunch ($13)—crispy noodle clusters and vegetables—keeps you interested until the last bite.
It's hard to believe the same kitchen also sends out the sodium-drenched spicy lemongrass ($12), the one-dimensional yaki udon ($11) and the DOA donburi ($10), done in by an off-putting dark soy glaze.
Solid soups and salads: Moira does have one menu section that's entirely reliable: salads. They're decently portioned and priced, and very snazzily seasoned. Ika sansai ($7) brings together squid and seaweed in a zesty yuzu vinaigrette; crab sunomono ($8) showcases snow crab, Japanese cucumber and seaweed brightened with a miso vinaigrette; and renkon ($9) combines lotus root, carrot and shrimp drizzled with a tangy lime-ginger vinaigrette. If you're looking for a light fill-up, these salads are very effective.
A heartier alternative is soup. The udon is pretty much a meal-in-a-bowl, a steaming iron pot of bubbling dashi broth sprinkled with furikake (a seaweed condiment) and stocked with vegetables, oyster and enoki mushrooms and a heap of thick noodles. And at $7, it's priced right, too.
Downtown renaissance: Within two blocks of Moira are four other independent restaurants that have sprouted in this once-barren wilderness in the last year or so: The Breadfruit, Sens, Turf Restaurant and Pasta Bar. Two more, Nine05 and Canteen, will debut later this summer. Word about this cool downtown dining cluster is starting to get out. Moira seems to be in the right place at the right time, poised to flourish as the economy recovers. It looks like the Fates may be smiling.