A year ago, McDonald’s unveiled an unusual item at its restaurants in Japan: a squid ink burger. The hamburger itself was all beef, no cephalopod, but the bun was given a dark color by squid ink. While some Italian and Japanese dishes may have a slight taste of the sea when colored with the substance, squid ink is often used primarily for its coloring effect. At CityScape in Downtown Phoenix, Squid Ink Sushi is as colorful as its name might suggest with a vibrant array of fresh sashimi and sushi, cooked items from the kitchen, and cocktails from the bar.
Squid Ink’s location at the corner of Central and Jefferson is one of three for the local restaurant, and it’s by far the most urban and accessible in comparison to the other sites in Scottsdale and Peoria. The Downtown Phoenix restaurant is easily reached via a one-block walk from both the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) light stations. CityScape has moved around its bike racks recently, but shaded parking for two-wheeled transport can be found across the street near the courtyard entrance to the CVS drugstore.
The restaurant has a patio that wraps around the corner, an indoor-outdoor bar, a sushi bar, and a dining room with good views of the historic buildings across the street. The restaurant’s interior has contemporary murals, a big round table for large groups, and a hidden nook near the sushi bar for discrete dining. The single occupant restrooms with shared sinks suggest a bit of modernity, as do some of the cocktails and menu items, but Squid Ink seems to understand the diversity of its clientele with a kids menu suitable for families attending Downtown events.
Since the restaurant has put sushi in its name, it’s appropriate to evaluate it first in terms of how it handles fish. Less appreciated species are often the most nutritious and sustainable ones, so don’t overlook basics like mackerel in the rush to try trendy rolls. This fatty (in a good way) fish emerges supple and fresh from the sushi bar. Squid Ink passes the test of offering fresh wasabi as an alternative to the familiar green mush. It’s a two-dollar upgrade in the dining room, but sometimes provided at no cost at the sushi bar to customers who appear serious about their sashimi.
Of course, there are rolls so ubiquitous (e.g. California and Vegas) they require little explanation. In addition, the restaurant adds some creative rolls of its own design. The Flying Phoenix roll is filled with shrimp tempura and topped with tuna tataki. The Seafood Dynamite roll resembles okonomiyaki, a Japanese pancake with bits of fish and scallops. The Surf and Turf roll departs from raw fish with a mixture of filet mignon and shrimp tempura. A lighter touch is evident in the Pokemon roll, where crab and salmon intermingle with lemon, jalapenos, and marinated onions.
Without the added starch of rice, the pureness of the fish is seen in sashimi dishes such as citrus yellowtail. At Squid Ink, creamy avocado and sprigs of cilantro pair with grapefruit and hamachi in a satisfying mix. Other light dishes include a sesame kale salad that may seem like an obligatory use of a fashionable vegetable, but the result is a simple, effective bowl of greens with a light but flavorful dressing. The Harvest salad is equally virtuous but more filling with leafy arugula, nutty quinoa, kabocha squash, cherry tomatoes, crunchy pepitas, and fresh mint.
While Squid Ink focuses heavily on sushi and sashimi, it also describes itself in terms of “Asian fusion” and “tapas.” If that verbiage is too trendy, just think in terms of cooked starters and entrees from the kitchen behind the sushi bar. The miso soup is enlivened with sliced mushrooms and the optional addition of dumplings, the same ones that are presented as fried pot stickers on the appetizer menu. A yakitori menu offers small portions of grilled items on skewers, including asparagus spears wrapped in bacon and sliced eggplant moistened and flavored with tahini.
The cooked entrees often take the form of meals-in-a-bowl based on rice or noodles. Coconut curry is influenced by Thai cooking with its spicy sauce, big prawns, and vegetables on top of short grain rice. Spicy vegetable udon takes an unexpected turn. The presentation is not the usual udon soup, but instead more like a yakisoba with a sauce that is as sweet as it is spicy. Ramen, which can be either pork or chicken depending on the day, includes a hard boiled egg and substitutes surimi (aka “crab stick”) for the more familiar disc-shaped fish cake sometimes known as naruto.
With an extended happy hour every day and late hours (especially by Downtown standards), it’s not surprising that Squid Ink emphasizes its regular bar as much as the sushi bar. There’s a list of creative cocktails, most of them on the sweet side, along with a serviceable selection of wines and beers. The taps rotate but usually feature a few interesting craft brews in addition to the usual suspects. Desserts are all large and designed to be shared. Even the seemingly simple green tea ice cream is a generous serving adorned with strips of sugared, fried wonton wrappers.
It has now been just over two years since Squid Ink expanded from its suburban origins to take a gamble on CityScape. The restaurant fills a void not only in terms of Japanese and Asian fusion foods in the Downtown core, but also in terms of evening and weekend hours that some neighboring restaurants have found unprofitable. Gimmicky squid ink burgers will (and probably should) remain in Japan for the time being, but the addition of sushi, sashimi, and other east Asian specialties to the Downtown Phoenix dining mix seems like a trend worth embracing.
2 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Ave. (eastbound) stations