NOCA, PHX. Uncertain to return
It’s with much trepidation that I post my comments on two separate dining experiences at NOCA. I know that the restaurant is well liked and repeatedly praised as some of the best dining in Phoenix. I have been out of the Phoenix dining scene for the past three years as having two kids close together will do that to you!
I have been looking forward to re-entering with my first meal being at NOCA and am sad to say that I was just underwhelmed with both dinners for different reasons.
The first dinner that we had was just my husband and I. We arrived promptly for our 6:00pm reservation and were offered two seats at the counter, which we grabbed. We love to watch the controlled chaos of a great kitchen in action. We both knew that we were going to go the Chef’s tasting route with wine pairings as this was a special occasion (hubby’s 40th birthday). We decided that before our ordering that we wanted to enjoy a glass of champagne and asked our server if he would be ok with that as we didn’t want to take up space if they needed to turn our spots quickly.
He said no problem, to take our time and then mentioned he would go ahead and take our order anyway and hold onto it while we got us our champagne. Perhaps this was our mistake by consenting, as the next thing we knew we had our lobster rolls, no champagne and no wine pairing.
The space was filing up quickly so when we stopped eating to try and get the attention of either server, or manager they all seemed to be back at the bar. At that point two different servers brought us champagne and our wine pairing and looked at each other with the recognition that something went amiss since we had four glasses in front of two people and half eaten food. We got an apology about the timing and at that point I figured they would correct the issue. The Lobster rolls were fantastic, served with I believe duck fat fries. A very solid dish and I would eat this again and again. I should clarify that we added this as an addition before our proper starter as we couldn’t resist and so glad we indulged
Our first starter came without any issue; we still had our wine pairing that was selected for our dishes. My husband had the mussels which were great and I went with a field salad with beets and goat cheese. Salad was decent, nothing stood out that would make me order it again. I should have gone with my 1st instinct and ordered the soup which smelled wonderful.
The next dish was to be our Primi, we both requested the squid ink fettuccine which was great. The problem was again our wine pairing did not come out, we had to request it and then no priority seemed to be put on the request as the pairing showed up as we were almost finished- dropped off by another server who we didn’t recognize.
The next snag we ran into was a 15 minute delay in our mains as the kitchen fired the wrong dish for me. I would have expected that they re-cook a fresh fish for my husband but instead they kept it warm. This misstep resulted in my husband’s fish being a bit over and my dish seemed rushed to be put on the plate as it was now the height of service. We did get a apology from the manager, who delivered our mains.
We were waiting for Desert and a I believe a man who was Elliot Wexler stopped by and said thank you for coming, I was about to say something about our overall experience and he was pulled in another direction and then gone for the evening.
Our initial server reappeared offered us dessert and with selections made we waited.. and waited.. and waited some more. When we approached the manager he said he would look into and came back and told us our again he was sorry but our desserts were sent to another table. At this point, I was so disappointed with service we requested the bill, ate our dessert, and wanted to pay to leave however waited another 10 minutes for our check to be run.
I approached the manager and let him know that the food was great, however the missteps with service and wine service were something I was not expecting as so many people had great things to say overall about NOCA, especially the service. He again apologized curtly, gave us our shortbread and we left… underwhelmed. Please note, that I did not expect a free dinner, or anything to be gifted to our table, I merely wanted to feel like I was heard and perhaps shown some empathy, neither occurred.
I am not one to discount a restaurant for one bad experience. So this week, when selecting a place for a business dinner, I choose NOCA. We had 6:00pm reservations and when arrived we were greeted warmly, and seated immediately. Menu’s presented; we ordered drinks and perused what to have. I will say straight away that our server was great, she checked in on us often and everything except bar service was timed appropriately (I am not sure what is up with their bar!) We ordered three starters, three mains, and three desserts.
The starters were: Burrata, fried clam slider and pork belly. The burrata was fantastic, the clam slider was sent back (something I very rarely do) and the pork belly disappointed.
For our mains we had filet mignon, scallops, and rotini with Berkshire pork. My rotini was very salty, the scallops were done very nicely and the steak was cooked properly and the bean ragout served with it was tasty. Deserts were fine. Overall a decent dinner, however again I was underwhelmed.
This time at the creativity and flavor profiles of the dishes. I really want to like NOCA, and perhaps we will give it a third shot and have a winning combination of both service and food, but for now I am off to try other places that I have missed in the last few years. If asked if I would recommend NOCA, I would say sure, but with some caveats in place to be sure.
3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016
I am very sorry to hear of these mis-steps, especially as I am one, who has sung the praises of NOCA from almost opening day.
In all of our dining experiences there, I can count one service issue, and it was similar to your pacing and wine issues, though not exactly. That was also many months ago, and we have had perfect service several times since then.
As I feel that Eliot Wexler takes NOCA very seriously, I urge you to share the details with him. He will want to know.
Your salty rotini is the second, recent comment on overly salted dishes there. That is not a good sign, and I would comment on that too. We had "the battle of the salt shaker" at a respected, albeit small-chain fusion restaurant, not that long ago. A guest kept getting heavily, over-salted main, and when she agreed on another dish, again with the salt! The fourth time was the charm, and we got apologies, plus her mains comp'ed, and then desserts for the table comp'ed. Not sure what was happening that night, but it took them some time to finally get it correct.
Still, you are not the first to comment recently on too much salt in a dish, so NOCA needs to know.
Now, it has been a few months, since we dined there, as we have been in the air a lot. Still, with all of our experiences, your report brings a tear to my eye, as I have felt that they were still the most exciting dining in PHX.
I am sorry to hear the tale, and am glad that you did give them another chance. Not sure that I would have done that, and you are to be commended.
Thanks for taking the time to do the review, and especially considering how respected NOCA is, by many on this board. [Gotta' admit that I am possibly their #1 fanboy, but I feel with good reason.]
Take just a moment more, and e-mail, call, or write Eliot. He WILL want to know.
re: Bill Hunt
Thanks for the reply.
We will probably re-visit NOCA again sometime soon. I just hope they can get the issues between service and food in sync and soon.
I have talked to many friends who visited NOCA in the early days of opening and months after and had nothing (like yourself) of high praise for it. Perhaps we will start again with the sandwhich shop, then dinner in a few months.
I myself will be traveling in London and Prague for business and won't have much time to dine out in PHX so we'll see what plays out.
However, before I leave, I will write to Eliot. Even though it was a very brief encounter he seemed extremely genuine and interested in his business.
P.S. Got any good rec's in London or Prague? Love your reviews and respect your taste....:-)
London, Rome, San Francisco, and half-a-dozen other places, are the reasons that we have not been there recently.
When in town, they are still our local fav. Hope that that does not have to change.
In London, where are you dining? If all has not been planned, I have some favs. (remember, I am a NOCA fan... ), that I'd be glad to share. Though my nephew did graduate work in Prague, I cannot help you there. I think that most of his dining was done in jail, after too many brews, but then that seems to be "graduate school abroad." [Grin]
I know I’m extremely late to the party, but I just dined at NOCA for the first time this past weekend for a special occasion dinner with my wife. I’m happy to report the food was so good that I got a little bit teary-eyed from joy by the dessert course. Yeah, I’m a little weird that way, get a couple of glasses of wine in me while eating meticulously prepared delicious food from a chef and staff that obviously “gets it” when it comes to doing all the things it takes to make the food so good that dining becomes a aesthetic sensory pleasure and not just a meal, and I might get emotional.
We started with sparkling wine and the steamed mussels in chorizo and garlic broth. I had a Schramsberg “Blanc de Blancs” 2007 and my wife had a Prosecco Bisol “JEIO” MV. Both paired well with the salty broth of the mussels. In regards to several reports of food being over salted, I’d say the broth the mussels were in was right on the edge of being over salted without actually falling over that edge. I do like my food properly seasoned and it was deeply instilled in me to not under salt food while in culinary school. It seems every day in class I heard chef say over and over to most students “this is good, but it needs more salt”. The broth was so good, we asked for spoons to get every last drop!
For entrees, I had the pork tenderloin with arugula salad and gnocchi and my wife had the Scottish salmon with saffron risotto. What impressed me most in the pork dish was how many different flavors were on the plate without it turning into a muddle or a chaotic clashing disaster. There were sautéed baby vegetables, a basil salsa verde, and a mango puree in addition to the other three main items in the dish. My wife’s salmon was exquisitely broiled to a crispy golden crust on top, yet moist and flaky underneath, just stunningly good. The saffron risotto was loaded with cheese and the fatty richness of the cheese successfully cut through that characteristic slightly metallic flavor of saffron and the acidity of the cooking wine. I think I need to use more cheese when I make risotto at home. I had a 2008 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon with the pork (and it was a surprisingly good match, not too tannic for the “other white meat” and also not blown out by the bright colors and sweetness of the other ingredients on the plate) and my wife had a Pinot Noir Robert Talbott “Logan”) which was also a good pairing. Everything on both plates was perfectly cooked and properly seasoned. The plates were good-looking and well-presented and those things matter a lot in my book. It doesn’t matter how creative a kitchen is with flavor combinations if the execution is flawed and our meal was nearly flawless in both execution, quality of ingredients and creative flavor combinations.
I do love my desserts, but too often I’m not really that impressed with what I get, even at many high-end kind of places. I went with the toffee pudding (not a custard, but a moist cake like persimmon pudding) in caramel sauce with Greek yogurt gelato and lime zest and it took the meal over the top for me. I have not been blown away like that by a dessert in a long long time. I love it when a flavor combination sounds odd to me but ends up being brilliant, like the strong lime flavor of the zest with the caramel and tangy gelato. A contrasting and complementing trio of flavors made this one fantastic. The timing and execution was impeccable, too, because the cake and sauce were warm, yet the gelato was soft, but not too melted. If they had not been too busy, I would've tried to congratulate the pastry chef, it was that good for me.
The only mis-step the entire night was the 15 minutes it took to get a cappuccino after dessert, which I can easily overlook given how excellent everything else was. Other than that the timing was great, service was efficient, courteous and professional and we were not rushed nor did we wait too long between courses, and the restaurant was packed by 7:30. Count me as another fan of NOCA!