Sam Fox did it again, with his creation of a restaurant concept unlike any other, especially in North Central Phoenix. Fresh seafood is extremely difficult to find in the dessert, but Sam Fox devised a successful plan to fly it in fresh daily, in order to fill a void for seafood lovers alike.
Located in the same plaza as The Yard, Little Cleo’s brings a different atmosphere and experience to this area. Her next door neighbor, Culinary Dropout, has a very casual ambiance perfect for sharing a meal or a drink with friends and maybe a game or two of ping pong. The newest addition brings a sophisticated seafood restaurant, with price points higher than its neighbor, but still providing something for everyone.
A quick glance of the menu will leave you feeling bland. Taking the time to look past the white space and small print, you will find some hidden gems from the sea. The top of the menu lists the fresh oyster selections, however there is a missing piece to this puzzle that I would have loved to see. After the hostess calls your name to be seated, she walks you right past the oyster bar. Bringing attention to the fresh oyster selection before seating the patrons, will inform them of the availability of this great selection. It’s a terrific feature of the restaurant that is easy to miss.
A fine facet of the menu is the offering of small plates. One of the greatest on the list were the Sweet Corn Hush Puppies. I was never a fan of this comfort food, but consider me converted. The perfectly crispy outer shell complimented the moist, sweet filling. With a light dusting of salt, they were exceptional with or without the dipping sauce provided. In fact they were so delicious, we ordered two! My good friend, Alan, had his eyes and his stomach set on these tasty bites from the start, and he was pleasantly surprised just how delicious they were.
The presentation of this dish would have been more exciting served in a paper cone of some sort or served in a basket. In my opinion, it was very humdrum-looking, but the flavors and well-executed cooking techniques made up for its appearance.
When I know I’m sitting in a restaurant that is providing fresh seafood, I almost always order the clam chowder. I was elated to see the New England Clam Chowder on the menu. This is one of those instances where simple and traditional works every time. However, Little Cleo’s put a different spin on this soup. It carried a more brothy consistency with bacon and potatoes (non-traditional) added. The generous serving of clams was definitely a plus.
The best small plate ordered was the blue crab toast served with fava beans, mint, and lemon. The mint and chilled toppings, provided an abundance of freshness, which came in handy for yet another hot day in Phoenix. The locally baked bread was grilled to perfection and served with toppings that added flavors and character, to which the others failed to invoke.
My only wish was that the ingredients were consistently used throughout this plate. The second slice had an abundance of mayonnaise, while the last bite had the lemon that I was excited for in the very beginning. Overall, it is definitely a must-order.
Moving down the menu, you can order Veggies or Greens to compliment your Small Plates, or you can order from the Large Plates. Our awesome and very attentive server, Jonni, informed us that they like to provide a “family style” eating experience with the large plates. With that in mind, we ordered three different entrees, with the intention of sharing a little bit of each.
My husband, Mike, ordered the traditional fish and chips with the celery seed coleslaw. The fish was perfectly cooked and seasoned with a great breading, which is the most important component to good fish and chips. The coleslaw was very flavorful and reminded my husband of a modern version of Colonel Sander’s famous recipe (this is a good thing). Mike wrapped up his meal with, “This was the best fish and chips in town!”
Our friend, Alan, ordered the cajun shrimp, red potato, corn, and grilled bread, despite the fact that he is not usually a big fan of shrimp. The description just sounded so enticing, and it was definitely a winner. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and bathing in a tasty cajun broth with a kick. The corn and shrimp portions, along with the giant spoon, made this entree more conducive for sharing. The grilled bread was a great addition to soak up some of that extra brothy goodness. With a light amount of carbs, this meal is easy to eat on a hot or cold day, and there is no doubt you will finish satisfied and full.
I ordered the “bouillabaisse” because of the variety of seafood that is included in more brothy goodness, not to mention the fact that I love saffron and fennel (ingredients highlighted in the description). I must also add that, this is one of my favorite seafood dishes, but it is all about creating a balance of textures, consistency, and flavors to create a winner.
One of the coolest things about this dish was the addition of toy box squash. Not only did it qualify as one of my vegetable servings for the day, but it also added a great deal of color to this dish, which makes it more appealing. The shrimp and mussels were cooked well, but I would have loved the scallops to be seared on each side to provide some extra textural contrast, so that the grilled bread didn’t have to hold down the fort alone.
If you can’t decide on which type of fish to order, this is always a great go-to dish. Just a note: even though the giant spoon is included when served, it is not a good dish to share “family style.”
Overall this meal was enjoyable and we will definitely be returning not only for the fresh seafood but also for the spectacular service. Our server, Jonni, was considerate when it came to my food allergies, and did not seem troubled when we asked questions about the menu.
Fortunately, we did not run into many issues except for the extreme saltiness of the second batch of Alan’s precious hush puppies. Since the staff at Little Cleo’s is still perfecting its service and dishes, we provided the feedback to help out. However, it was graciously taken off the bill by the General Manager, Blake, even after we insisted they keep it on the bill and send a friendly note to the kitchen.
There is something to be said about providing astounding customer service. Not only does it create repeat customers, but it attracts new ones through positive word-of-mouth exposure.
We are looking forward to our next visit to Little Cleo’s, as it will continue to fulfill my cravings for fresh seafood with its diverse menu and fantastic staff. Please visit Little Cleo’s soon, and tell them Q sent ya!
5632 N. Seventh Street
Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.