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NOCA after Curtiss?

mwest9 Oct 17, 2011 04:36 PM

Has anybody eaten at NOCA since Chef Curtiss left this summer? I'd really like to hear a report if anyone has (Bill Hunt, are you out there?!) Thanks!

  1. hohokam Oct 17, 2011 06:05 PM

    I've been meaning to write something for a while, so thanks for the push...

    I was in twice during the kitchen interregnum, and most recently, I was in once during Matt Taylor's first or second week on the job. All three meals were excellent, as has been my usual experience at noca.

    My most recent visit was on the first day of Restaurant Week (which I had forgotten about prior to seeing the menu) during which a 3-course menu was the default offering. For my first course, I chose the perfectly seasoned, perfectly cooked, country pate with black truffle and hollandaise sauce (or gribiche? can't remember now). With half a baguette, I could have made a meal of a couple of slabs of this pate and left happy. But given Chef Taylor's pedigree, I was eager to try his takes on Southern favorites.

    The main course I chose was an elegant, smoky, and subtly spicy ham hock and andouille gumbo with creamy Anson Mills grits and Gulf shrimp topped with a thin shaving of Benton's country ham (a perfect, if plural, marriage of pig, salt, and smoke). This was refined, but not overwrought, Southern comfort food. You'll want to try this.

    The centerpiece of the dessert I chose was the "Noca Bar"--which I found reminiscent of Loacker's chocolate-covered stacks of thin crisp wafer cookies and hazelnut cream; I think others have referred to it as a "grown-up's KitKat". At any rate, this combination of hazelnut and chocolate flavors and crisp and creamy textures shines as the best chocolate dessert I've had in a good long while, and that while encompasses a recent visit to Binkley's.The Noca Bar is emblematic of what makes Noca one of my favorite places to eat in that it demonstrates a great balance of homeyness, whimsy, imagination, and expert execution. Oh, and the accompanying hazelnut gelato wasn't too shabby either. I don't know if this will be making a return appearance anytime soon, as I was told that it was pretty finicky and very labor-intensive.

    In short, I haven't seen any drop-off in terms of food quality or hospitality since Chef Curtiss's departure, and I am looking forward to many great meals from Chef Taylor and crew.

    3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

    5 Replies
    1. re: hohokam
      mwest9 Oct 31, 2011 10:30 AM

      We had dinner at noca this weekend, and I’m really disappointed to say that we were, well, really disappointed. It was the second time we’d dined there, the first being right before Chef Curtiss left and we were blown away by that meal.

      This weekend, noca missed the mark badly on food preparation, kitchen timing, menu, and service.

      The biggest let-down, most importantly, was that the food was just not cooked well for a fine dining restaurant. Fingerling potatoes that were way under-cooked. Under-salted fish. Bland under-seasoned vegetables. We did enjoy the mussels with the ham, pineapple and the mild chiles and the warm toffee pudding with goat milk gelato and lime zest for dessert was still excellent. But the entrees were disappointing. There were less flavors on each plate than previous and the flavor combinations were unimpressive and ordinary. If your plate consists of potatoes, braised onions, meat and a sauce, all of those four flavors need to be excellent. It was sadly not the case. The striped bass plate consisted of the under-salted fish, a bland lump of summer squash and a few cubes of sunchoke with no detectable sauce on the plate. Our food was cold and the sauces were drying on the plates by the time we got them; I could tell they sat for several mintues before they arrived at our table. While its low down on the list of important things for me when dining, the plates looked poorly plated with no garnishes to add flavor and color and a nice appearance. There were no contrasting textures in the food (except for bad ones like the crunch of a half-raw roasted potato).

      We had the same server we had last time and on that occasion, he was sharp, professional and spot-on. This time was far different with him stumbling over explaining the menu and bringing wines after the food had arrived. There was not a sharp proficiency to the service as there had been at our first visit.

      The menu has gotten smaller it seems, with just two fish choices and a beef dish and a pork dish for entrees (besides the 3 pasta dishes), but worse is it has become less creative and surprising in ingredients and flavor combinations.

      Unfortunately, I have to disagree with hohokam and say that noca after Curtiss has slid a long way.

      3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

      1. re: mwest9
        hohokam Oct 31, 2011 01:06 PM

        I can't comment on the quality of the food you were served, but the menu composition sounds to be the same as it has been for the past several months, in terms of the number of main courses (two meats, two seafoods, one vegetarian) and number of pasta dishes (usually 3).

        1. re: mwest9
          Bill Hunt Oct 31, 2011 07:29 PM

          This saddens me greatly. We are both fans of NOCA, but have been gone, since Chef Curtiss left, and have just returned, so have not dined there recently.

          Back when, they were one of our favorite restaurants. Eliot Wexler is a savy restauranteur, and I would anticipate that he will be reading your review, and addressing things in a good way. Just speculation, but via observations, think that he'll be pulling things together.

          Hope to get by soon, as much of the travel is now over, and we are HOME for a bit.


          1. re: Bill Hunt
            mwest9 Oct 31, 2011 08:44 PM

            I'll be interested, Bill, to hear your report after you dine there again. It saddens me, too, because we loved NOCA so much on our first visit. I hope it was just a fluke and things will improve.

            Another item my wife just reminded me of. The music was a bit loud and sounded a bit too much like something from a night club. I don't remember the music being that way the first time we went, but I could be wrong. Regardless, I found the music to create a more tense environment than a relaxing one. If they are now going for a more hip and energetic vibe, then maybe it will work. I did not enjoy the music, though and from what I've read from you Bill, I think you would have commented on the music if it had been this way previously.

            1. re: mwest9
              Bill Hunt Nov 1, 2011 07:06 PM

              On my first visit, I do not think that the music was even mentioned in the review - just did not notice it. Later, several CH's did mention it, and I began to take notice. Yes, it was higher in volume, than I would have chosen. Same for some of the reflective surfaces, like the large mirrors on the North wall. They work to let diners, facing a wall, see the interior, and the kitchen, and I like that, but they are slightly angled, and reflective (here, I am talking about audio, and not making a pun), and that is a bit of a problem for me. I like quiet dining venues, with both the music and the ambient noise level. Still, I am old, rather set in my ways, and many of the younger folk really enjoy a louder setting.

              We're finally home for a bit, and hope to get back to NOCA. They have always delivered for us, and I feel that I have kind of grown up with them. We were not there for either the soft-opening, or the grand opening, but visited very soon afterwards. We have always had great food, excellent service (only about 3 little missteps over perhaps 20 visits), and I have just overlooked the music and noise level.

              I just hope that things go well, because of our love for the restaurant, and Eliot Wexler is such a hard working owner. I want them to always be one of my favorites.


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