The word “Moira,” at least as a given name for a person, is derived from a Greek word meaning “fate” or “destiny.” It’s not clear if Moira Sushi Bar and Kitchen, a Japanese restaurant in the Evans Churchill neighborhood of Downtown Phoenix, has any link to that Mediterranean lineage. Nevertheless, the name is fitting because Moira has been a harbinger of what is now occurring all around it. When the restaurant opened in 2009, it felt lonely, occupying the ground floor of the 215 East McKinley condominium building with vacant lots on surrounding blocks in every direction.
Eight years later, the nearby Phoenix Biomedical Campus has expanded, continuing its northward march, and, at the same time, much-needed residential development has blossomed along Roosevelt Row. At Moira’s location along McKinley, there are the new Proxy 333 apartments just a block away and more proposed along Third Street. The result is that the four-block walk or bike ride from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station to the restaurant no longer seems so desolate. Instead, it’s a tour of a neighborhood undergoing a rapid increase in density and development.
Moira’s space, recently enhanced with a sidewalk patio, sits on the south side of McKinley between Second and Third streets. There are some bike loops built into the parking meters outside and larger racks nearby at Proxy 333 and outside the Antique Sugar vintage clothing store across the street. The restaurant’s interior is minimalistically stylish. There’s a little decor suggestive of East Asian themes, but mostly it’s a modern, urbane theme. One welcome detail is an L-shaped sushi bar that has a small area at a lower elevation suitable for wheelchair users.
Diners who sit at the bar are given a menu to mark up and hand to the sushi chef. Those who sit at tables order from a server. Either way, the options are the same. The menu is mostly Japanese with some flourishes from other east Asian cuisines. Of the four major sections, the first is Izakaya, Japanese tavern food that translates into appetizers when eaten in American-style courses. Kara-age are bits of crisp fried chicken with a sauce similar to aioli. Edamame are offered not only in their traditional format, but also in a Sichuan variant with shaved garlic resembling bonito flakes.
Some items on this part of the menu seem as though they’d be just as well placed among the sushi selections. Salmon cannoli is a sashimi roll with supple fish wrapped around seaweed and sliced avocado. Perhaps the most striking appetizer is a tureen full of spicy cucumber soup. The base is a hot pepper broth full of vegetables including baby corn, enoki mushrooms, and, sure enough, cucumbers. It’s uncommon, at least in the United States, to see this vegetable in cooked form, but the preparation works with firm but yielding slices mixing well with the other ingredients.
The next section of the menu is devoted to sushi, meaning in this case nearly 20 species prepared in nigiri form and served in pairs. Familiar favorites such as salmon and tuna are present, along with bolder choices such as mackerel. In addition, there are less common varieties such as escolar, a mild white fish, on the menu. Most are raw, but a few items such as the seared albacore are lightly cooked and paired with their own matching sauces. Fresh wasabi is available at a small charge as an upgrade to the standard green paste that comes with each sushi order.
Underlying the fish in all the nigiri is the often neglected foundation, rice. Moira’s rice is generally firm without gumminess, maintaining its structured when handled. After nigiri comes a separate section labeled “makimoto,” which is devoted to the restaurant’s signature rolls. The Sunshine makimoto lives up to its fiery name with genuinely spicy salmon and a bright note of citrus from thin lemon slices on top. The Rising Sun roll is filled with tempura shrimp, flash fried but still almost raw on the inside, and topped with a little avocado and served with a sweet chili glaze.
Indulgent surf-and-turf choices include the Sensei roll, which combines spicy lobster and seared beef with truffle oil, avocado, and shiitake mushrooms, and the Minto makimoto, featuring a bit of roast beef with fresh mint and onions inside, and shrimp in a garlic butter sauce on top. For an option with no fish or meat of any kind, the Rainforest roll is a vegetarian mix of tofu, asparagus, and lotus with an accompanying plum sauce. The only disappointment was the substitution of ordinary carrot for the more exotic yamagobo (pickled burdock root) promised on the menu.
The final segment of the menu is labeled “hot kitchen.” These are cooked entrees, paired with either rice or noodles. Their inspiration comes not only from Japan, but also from other east Asian cuisines. The golden curry has a strong Thai influence with assertive flavor, crisp vegetables, and a choice of protein such as tofu or shrimp. Udon stir fry features a mix of vegetables — baby corn, broccoli, enoki mushrooms, and bok choy — blanched before a quick finish in a wok with thick wheat noodles and a mild sauce. The final addition is a layer of sesame seeds on top.
Moira has a full bar, located off to the side of the entrance, with plenty of sake, beer, wine, and cocktails. Like many of its neighbors, the restaurant is generally sedate during lunch and more lively at night. There’s no dessert on the menu, but Snoh Ice Shavery, a recent arrival right across the street, offers more than enough choices that complement the Asian themes in Moira’s food. With all the construction in the area, Moira no longer feels as lonely as it used to. Perhaps this Moira was indeed an early sign of the eventual fate or destiny of the surrounding neighborhood.
215 E. McKinley, Phoenix AZ 85004