Success Reimagined – Chef Cullen Campbell’s Bar Pesce

Writer Shannon Severson
Photography Courtesy of Bar Pesce

Imagine having an incredibly successful restaurant with scores of adoring customers steadfastly enjoying your signature dishes. Rave reviews keep rolling in for six years.

Then, you take a huge risk. You change the name, the menu, and even the cultural influence of your offerings. It’s a bold move that could make or break a successful dining hotspot.

Chef Cullen Campbell of Bar Pesce, formerly Crudo, officially opened his new concept in October 2018 in the same space as Crudo in Phoenix’s Camelback East neighborhood. With Bar Pesce, his flavors have gone from decidedly Italian to Italian with pronounced Asian influences.

I asked Chef Cullen what inspired the reimagining and rebranding of his extremely successful first go-round as restaurant owner and chef.

“When I founded Crudo, it was something different,” Campbell points out, “but after awhile—there are so many Italian restaurants in town. So many. I thought it was time to go back to a little bit more of my love of Asia and its food.

“We are still doing very similar things to Crudo, but with the Japanese influence. We added some Vietnamese and a little Korean—little things here and there. It’s just been fun to play around with ingredients and methods that I haven’t been able to play with for so long.”

Phoenix continues to solidify its place as a food destination and Bar Pesce fills a real need for skillfully crafted Asian dishes in a relatively casual setting.

“One of the reasons for the re-brand is to make things a little more casual,” says Campbell. “That’s the direction I see things moving in Phoenix.”

Campbell has spent enough time in the city’s food scene as both resident and cook to know what works for Valley tastes. His plates are beautifully composed with flavors that foodies gush about, and the high-ceilinged space is decorated in elegant neutral tones for a warm, comfortable effect.

Bar Pesce’s cocktail list still offers the classics and sips with clever names like “Dolly Llama,” La Caravedo Pisco mixed with lime, strawberry and sugar, and “Ritten in the Stars,” starring Ritten House Rye with Contratto, Meletti, Demerera, AZBL Figgy Pudding Bitters and FB Black Walnut Bitters.

These, along with happy hour bites like Truffled Bacon Popcorn, Crab Sliders and a Biscuit Doughnuts with salted caramel keep patrons coming back for more.

“People are really gravitating toward the switchover, which as been very nice,” Campbell says. “There’s some skepticism, but when they come in, they like the changes. We are always doing new things and widening our range of items. It’s nice to see some of my old regulars visiting even more often. Some people get a little upset because they want something we’ve done in the past, but if they let me know, I’m willing to make old favorites.”

The menu at Bar Pesce is printed in-house and changes almost weekly, though there are favorites that remain for devotees. Campbell skillfully changes up the offerings at will with dazzling results.

Foodies may have a tough time narrowing down their choices, but course pricing allows diners to get a full range of tastes from popular items like raw blue fin tuna with avocado, nori and horseradish, and the Crab Mi Roll—a play on Vietnamese banh mi—served with lobster roe aioli, pickled vegetables and cilantro.

Crispy Pig Ears, a favorite from the Crudo menu, has been reimagined in the style of a Thai green papaya salad replete with herbs, chile and lime vinaigrette.

Pasta is still on the menu in the form of Squid Ink Risotto, tagliatelle with Two Wash Ranch Guinea fowl, tomato, capers and white wine, and a Cacio e Pepe-prepared gnocchi with escargot.

Campbell’s Tennessee roots are revealed in his use of a wood-fire grill. Filet with beets and ponzu verde, Hamachi collar with eggplant, romesco, lemon and Shishito and, with 72-hour advance notice, half a roasted pig head, banh mi-style, are all cooked over a roaring fire of Arizona pecan wood.

“I worked in a restaurant where we had a wood fire grill and I wondered, ‘Why would anyone ever want a gas grill after tasting this?” says Campbell. “The flavor is amazing and the smell is fantastic, so it’s just been one of those things. Any time I can work with wood fire, I do.”

Campbell recalls that his love of Japanese food dates as far back as his teen years, where he started work as a dishwasher, knowing he wanted to pursue a restaurant career. While he has no formal culinary education, he learned on the job and his business degree from Arizona State University helps with the many tasks entailed on the operations side.

“I trained under many chefs, mainly of European influence,” says Campbell, “but I was always really interested in Japanese food and really wanted to do a Japanese restaurant. I gravitated toward Japanese food and sashimi and stuff like that. That’s where it all began.”

Along with distinct flavors comes the need for well-sourced ingredients. Campbell credits great relationships with his former sous chef who now runs Nelson’s Meat + Fish down the street, which teems with the freshest seafood from around the world, and Kanaloa Seafood in Santa Barbara, known for its certified sustainable selection.

“Nelson’s is such a cool spot,” Campbell says with a smile. “They’re bringing in really good stuff. They stock smaller product that is really seasonal and fresh. I’ll pick up those limited amount items and put it on my menu. Last week, they had sweet shrimp that was delicious and yesterday, they had this beautiful little Red Snapper. It was so good.”

Building these relationships has prompted a great deal of travel and discovery of new possibilities for Campbell. A self-described wine geek, his wine list is full of interesting picks. He has some wine dinners in the works, including one in March with Andre Mack, renowned sommelier, now wine maker and graphic designer, whose Maison Noir label produces stellar Oregon vintages.

“Andre was the master sommelier for Thomas Keller’s [four-star] Per Se in New York,” says Campbell. “He makes some really good, fun wines and he’s a super cool guy. I also want to do a champagne and hand roll night.

“I’d like to get more involve in the wine business and have a few people in Napa who’ve said they would help me. The ultimate would be to get a little spot in downtown Napa.”

With creativity and talent aplenty, Bar Pesce is never the same restaurant twice. Keep an eye on Chef Campbell as he continues to skillfully craft every gorgeous plate.

Guilty Pleasures

A chef does not live by high-end ingredients alone. What does Chef Cullen Campbell crave when he’s not in the Bar Pesce kitchen?

Frozen pizzas

Cheese dip from Pancho’s in Memphis, TN – “I brought a bunch home. It’s just a tub of processed cheese and it’s delicious. We even dip pizza rolls in it.”

Cheeseburgers – Campbell serves a meatloaf burger at Bar Pesce’s happy hour. Beyond the restaurant, he likes burgers from The Stand and the wood-fired flavor of Chelsea’s cheeseburgers. “Tarbell’s has a cheeseburger they do at their bar, it’s basically based on a Big Mac, but really done right. It’s so good. I’ll pull a red Burgundy off the shelf in the wine shop next door and take it over and have it with a Tarbell’s cheeseburger. I’m so happy.”

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