Restaurant noca - you should go, and I should go back.
As always, pictures in the blog and text as below.
The Gist: http://www.restaurantnoca.com/
The Why: A work of passion from a former stock trader turned restauranteur, noca had been on my “to visit” list ever since I visited Phoenix for my recruitment in September of 2011, but unfortunately a chef shift right before I visited (and another thereafter) gave me pause. Owned by Eliot Wexler and considered by many locals ‘in-the-know’ to be amongst the best restaurants in the city I knew I would eventually make my visit, but it was not until the high praise of new chef Claudio Urciuoli’s cuisine and a ringing endorsement from Steve Plotnicki via facebook came across that I moved noca to #1 on my list. With a concept that seems rather straight forward - high end ingredients prepared with an Italian twist in a casual environment – I generally assumed that noca was going to impress, and at a price point that seemed bargain basement compared to similar establishments in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.
The Reservation: For the sake of full disclosure I have to note here that I was known walking in the door. Between Steve’s endorsements that I must meet his friend Eliot and another local diner who’d apparently told Mr. Wexler about me months before I figured it was only proper to introduce myself to the restaurant’s owner prior to making a reservation – an introduction that led to a string of e-mails covering everything from sourcing to local general contractors, and finally a reservation at 8:30pm on Saturday night (actually secured ~18 hours before the meal via Opentable.) What I hadn’t planned on, however, was a stop earlier in the day to check out the afternoon ‘nocawich’ menu…but hey, why not?
The Space: Located, like many Phoenix restaurants, in a simple strip mall the exterior of noca is nothing to get excited about – it could be any random sports bar or billiards hall, but what lies inside is actually quite sleek; a sort of urban industrial feel but still sort of homey and laid back. By day more casual and by night more trendy the use of industrial light bulbs plus spotlights and mirrors allows the room to be as intimate or as bright as necessary and with an open kitchen during both lunch and dinner service there is plenty to watch. With a lively bar, close set tables lacquered in black, and brick walls plus a lively soundtrack I will say the space gets loud, but certainly not overly so, and for those who enjoy watching a kitchen at work the marble chef’s counter is a great place to eat.
The Service: Considering how busy noca was (not an empty seat in the house save for the one to my left) I was stunned at the fluidity and efficiency of service. Dishes were presented with ample descriptions, questions of ingredients and preparations were answered thoroughly and knowledgably, and aside from a few small quirks (that the average diner would have never paid a second thought to) my primary server named Jenny could not have been more pleasant, professional, or helpful with her suggestions. A lively spot where many patrons probably don’t really pay attention to the quality of the service I’ll simply say I’ve been to a number of Michelin starred spots with a far less impressive front of house.
The Food: A sandwich and dessert at Nocawich at lunch/two drinks, eight courses, bread, amuses, mignardises at dinner.
Croque Madame with Pork Belly, Brioche, Fried Egg, Gruyere Foam: This $10 sandwich from the Saturday Noca(wich) menu would feature a slightly modernist update on the French classic and as much as I love the combination of ham, egg, and cheese in all forms this one raised the bar a bit by utilizing tender belly bacon from Mr. Wexler’s supplier out of Iowa paired with crisp brioche, a perfect sunny side egg, a thin slice of aged gruyere, and finally an aromatic foam from an ISI Whip that made cheese whiz seem tame in comparison. As good as the lobtah roll sounded, I find it hard to believe it would have trumped the croque – but I’m certainly going back with my BOGO from dinner to find out.
Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting: Simple, dense, moist, and featuring an ample amount of tangy cream cheese icing there really isn’t much else to say about this cake. Not overly sweet like so many ‘designer’ cupcakes the $3.50 rustic wedge was a welcome change from the norm – the cocoa allowed to shine rather than taking a back seat to the sugar.
Bricco Riella Moscato D’Asti: Moving on to dinner, my night began with a complementary beverage from Eliot – a sweet and light-bubbly DOCG Moscato that was nice for sipping throughout the lighter opening courses and the sort of sparkler I’d gladly drink in place of the typical Prosecco served at other haute-Italian restaurants.
PB&J: A second beverage, served later in the meal and suggested by Jenny, consisted of Peanut Infused Buffalo Trace Bourbon, muddled raspberries, and a splash of fresh lemon. Generally not one to fancy the oakiness of bourbon I have to say the original suggestion gave me pause, but I figured at $10 I could afford to take a chance and as my reward I surprisingly excellent drink with the aromatics of the peanuts pairing with the smokiness of the charred oak barrels to help balance the bitterness of the alcohol while the sweetness of the raspberries came through as a jammy sort of flavor that dissipated soon after it hit the tongue.
House Focaccia: Somewhat less oily than the average focaccia and served without butter or oil the bread service at noca is serviceable but nothing to write home about; the sort of bread you’d use to mop up sauces but certainly not overindulge on – perhaps a good thing considering the portion sizes (as I’d soon find out.)
Panzanella Salad, House Bread, Cherry tomatoes: The night’s amuse this straightforward take on a traditional Italian Summer Salad was one bite off a spoon; bold, balanced, toothsome, and nicely tinged with olive oil and vinegar – a nice way to open the palate to the flavors to come.
Fluke Crudo – Sea Beans, Watermelon Radish, Finger Lime: A gift from the kitchen, I’ll start out by saying that in general I don’t fancy Fluke – the slight fishiness and snappy texture not really what I prefer in a raw prep – but showing a skilled hand with using sweets and bitters to balance the fish this was about as good as fluke gets. Doused in oil and lightly touched with esplette the dish had just a bit of kick and a whole lot of flavor; if you like flounder or crudo in general it is definitely worth checking out as the quality of the fish was excellent.
King Salmon Arancine with Herb Aioli: At $7 I decided to take a chance on this one despite my general blasé for salmon largely because I’d heard Eliot and Chef Claudio discussing the quality of the salmon and because I love arancini – and as it turns out, it was an excellent choice. Crisp on the exterior with flawlessly prepared Carnaroli rice wrapped around rich salmon each of these three balls was just slightly larger than a golfball and paired nicely with herbal aioli not dissimilar from ranch dressing as well as a paste of what I believe was pimento pepper the flavor was anything but boring salmon, but rather like a southern style salmon croquette with far more nuance thanks to the quality of the rice.
Yellow Watermelon Soup: A palate cleanser before the pastas this small coup of soup was a sort of gazpacho teaming with herbal notes and a slight melon undertone that was both familiar yet unique. Probably not the sort of thing I’d order a big bowl of, but definitely a refresher between the two seafood openers and the two that would follow.
Spaghettini dei Martelli with Ft. Bragg Uni, Dungeness Crab, Breadcrumbs: Seemingly more and more common on menus these days I was happy to learn that noca offers half portions of all their pastas so that I could try this out without filling up too much stomach space (as you’ll see, this actually WAS an issue for once) and for $9 this was still one heft serving of pasta with the thin noodles amply imbued with briny urchin butter, sweet shredded crab, and a spoon full of breadcrumbs for texture. Half the price and just as much flavor as similar presentations elsewhere the only critique I could possibly muster for this dish was that the uni was perhaps a little too thin, losing texture but retaining flavor and thus allowing the high quality crab to steal the spotlight.
Carnaroli Risotto with Blue Prawns, Leeks, Aji Panca: Having already noted the quality of the risotto – the handiwork of a young sous-chef standing in front of me all night – this $10 half-portion of creamy rice unfortunately arrived on the heels of the Spaghettini thus forcing me to make a decision as to which would have to suffer a bit of cooling, but after one bite I knew it was the spaghettini sitting out this dance. Toothsome yet fluffy, spicy but not ‘hot,’ and a perfect melding of the aromatic leeks and snappy sweet prawns this was probably the most rave-worthy dish of the evening. A dish often presented but rarely perfected I’ve been told that risotto is “always” on the menu at noca and if that is the case and it is always this good then I’d suggest there is “always” a reason to visit.
Ricotta Mousse, Sour Cherry: Another one bite intermezzo there is nothing to say about this dish that can’t be guessed from the ingredients – smooth as ice cream and rich as cheesecake they could have served me a bowl for dessert and I’d have been more than contented.
Berkshire Pork Chop – Speck Wrapped, Manchego & Fennel Stuffed, with Cabbage, Beets, Roasted Peaches, and Peach Togarashi Sauce: This is where things got silly. Knowing that I’d ordered a bird for my main course I first thought that this was a mistake, but in reality the only mistake was Eliot sending it with instructions that I should just ‘have a taste.’ Wanting to show of the quality of his sourcing, what I received here was a 12oz chop of Iowa raised hog and with the pork itself tended and easily cut with a butter knife (if not the edge of a fork) Chef Urciuoli opted to gild the proverbial lily by punching a hole in the chop, infusing it with rich Manchego cheese and fennel, then wrapping it in smoky speck before cooking it to a juicy medium well. Enormous in size and savory as hell, the plate was finished with roasted peaches, spicy peach sauce, balsamic, and a bit of beet puree plus shredded cabbage…quite the intermezzo if I do say so myself.
Bubba’s Half Chicken alla Diavola – Prosciutto Wrapped, Cacio di Roma Filled, Swiss Chard, Peperonata: Following the theme of stuffed, wrapped, roasted, and served in large portion this $23 half-chicken was ordered as my ‘main course’ (though arriving after the chop it would be hard to call anything “main” except perhaps a porterhouse) and recommended by Eliot by e-mail even before I arrived it would prove to be anything but “just chicken.” Featuring no-less than half the chicken and roasted to a succulent tan what truly made this dish stand out was the deconstructed ‘cordon bleu’ approach as the creamy ewe’s milk cheese lining the interior oozed forth with each bit while the slight gaminess of the prosciutto added brine to the already crisp skin. Knowing here that peppers atop such a long day of eating would necessitate Tums, Pepcid, or both I sampled lightly of the pepper stew and only wished I’d have been able to enjoy more as the sweet peppers, garlic, and herbs were lovely but at this stage of the game still too much acid and heat even as I picked around the hotter peppers intertwined.
Green Apple Cotton Candy: Declining coffee when Jenny made the offer she went to ready the bill – a bit of a misstep as I surely was not going to skip dessert no matter how full I was – but thankfully Eliot caught her in midstride and ordered two desserts for me…plus a big twirl of this cotton candy, the flavor of a green apple Jolly Rancher spun into an puffy cloud.
Walnut Cake and Compressed Fuji Apple with Dairy Free Vanilla Bean Sorbet and Cider Broth: Described as a dacquoise by the pastry chef but utilizing almond in place of the traditional almonds or hazelnuts this light meringue was served atop compressed balls of apple and finished tableside with apple cider. A light dish in texture but full of flavor I particularly enjoyed the clean finish of the sorbet – an intense vanilla that was heavy on the palate but light on the swallow and serving to meld the walnuts and apples nicely.
Triple Chocolate Flan with Maldon Sea Salt and Praline Rice Crisps: Whatever the walnut cake lacked in heft was more than made up for in this one – a ‘flan’ in name only from my standpoint, though I’m sure some gelatin was involved, this was a proper budino that I’d have finished no matter how full I was. Featuring a top later of dark and a second layer of slightly-less-dark chocolate and topped with just enough salt to create contrast I particularly loved the fact that the bulk of the sweetness was derived from only four little pieces of praline plus a caramelized cookie at the side. Call it a flan, call it a budino, call it pudding, pot du crème, or panna cotta…it is really quite good, and more than enough to share.
Chocolate Chip Shortbread: A parting gift, just in case you haven’t had enough – it was buttery, it was crisp, and at this point I couldn’t help but think “it’s only wafer thin” as I ate it on the car ride home.
The Verdict: Having had a number of good-to-great meals in Phoenix both during my recruitment and since settling here noca is the first place I’ve been where I truly feel like I could become a ‘regular,’ thanks in part to the quality of the food, the ever changing menu, the comparatively low prices, and finally to Mr. Wexler and his team.
Thanks for the review. Noca's food is always great but the experience never feels "special" to me personally, as in the service is always proficient but a little casual and rushed. At the price point it's never been a complaint for me but something I thought I would add since Noca strikes an interesting balance between high end dining (shortbread at the end, amuse bouche) and casual dining.
I've been noticing the pasta/uni combo a lot recently as well - first in Robuchon in Vegas, then an Italian spot in Boston, now Noca. It isn't my favorite flavor combination but others loved it.
(Full disclosure: I haven't been since Chris Curtiss was chef as I was living in Chicago).
Also, don't get me wrong, I really like Noca, and it's been a sacred cow on this board since it opened, but for me personally it doesn't have the "it factor". By "it factor" I mean I dream of a dish there and want to go there on a constant basis. The price point vs. quality of food is hard to beat though. I'd be interested to hear others opinions on Noca with the chef changes as well
Do you have plans to check out FnB? Another very popular spot on this board that also has sacred cow status. I love FnB but there are definitely some who do not so I'd be interested to hear your take.
For us, NOCA beat FnB, hands down, but then we have been heading to NOCA, since the hard opening, and have only done FnB once - but that was enough for us to decide to not go back.
I have been a very big, and vocal "fanboy" for NOCA, since about day 5. We have dined there, through a couple of great chefs, but have not managed to get back recently.
While we do enjoy 3-star restaurants, NOCA feels very comfortable to us. Over the years, and visits, not every dish has been stellar, but many have. When dining there, I do not expect Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, or Eric Ripert, but the food can come close - very close, when things are ON.
Gotta' get by soon.
Great review. Sorry that you missed a few iterations of NOCA, but sounds like things are "hitting on all cylinders."
NOCA is just a favorite of ours (and of our friends), but we have not been there, since the last chef change. Been in the air, more than the ground, and in places like London and San Francisco MUCH more than in Phoenix.
Your review makes me want to fit them in, in the few days that we ARE in Phoenix. Sounds great.
I am with you, regarding the space. While there is no "view," that is not all bad. We have always gone there for the food, and the wine. We have been in too many restaurants with great views, but no worthy food, and a wine list with only the "usual suspects."
Eliot runs a great shop, IMHO, and few can equal it. As Phoenix has become a "food desert," except for absentee chef, expense account steakhouses, having a gem, like NOCA is important, at least to us. I mean, just how many steakhouses does Phoenix really need, and especially mediocre and very expensive ones?
We'd be "regulars" too, if only we did not travel so danged much.
Thank you, and we MUST get back there!
You are probably correct there. Still, I lament some now gone, chef-driven establishments, and even some that have remained, but changed fairly dramatically. Over the last few years, it seems that we are dining out much more in other cities, and, except for events, etc., are dining in, when back home in Phoenix. We just do not seem to get out as much here, as we once did.
OTOH, on our last trip back to Denver, we were saddened, and disappointed at the number of great restaurants, that had disappears, and the number of noted chefs, who had really slipped. We moved there, when it was almost a wasteland, regarding culinary delights, and enjoyed the growth of great restaurants, and fine chefs. We left for Phoenix about 14 years ago, and found some real gems here - alas, too many are gone.
I was probably too harsh on the culinary scene here, but when I see the number of good to great restaurants, that have been replaced by "same-old, same-old" steakhouses, a tear comes to my eye.
That is probably what we love about NOCA, though the chefs have changed. We have been very fortunate to have dined there from the beginning, and caught Chef Taylor about 4x, while he was there. We need to get back now, though it will likely not be until early 2013, looking at our travel schedule.
Glad that you are among us now, and also glad that you have enjoyed NOCA, as I have always appreciated your reviews and comments. I am sure that Eliot will appreciate them too. He cares so very much, and it shows. I greatly appreciate that, though sometimes I feel that I haunt his nightmares... [Grin]
In a perfect world, he'd have a separate, large "quiet room," for some of our board dinners. Maybe in NOCA II?
re: Bill Hunt
There's a ton of exciting stuff opening, Bill. Just not at that price point / atmosphere. Everybody who's putting big money into a nice buildout is (understandably) too scared to go out on a limb. But man, particularly in the last year, there's been a small horde of awesome openings of little family-run joints. I realize I'm guilty of this a lot, but instead of wishing we had what we don't, why not focus on some of the fabulous stuff that HAS been opening?
re: Bill Hunt
It's not you, Bill. This is a topic of endless frustration to me. 95% of the press/posting/buzz is timidly focused on the same handful of mainstream restaurants, and most of them are okay at best (with, as always, some notable exceptions). So we end up in this rut because people either A) have few places to go for info about what's *actually* interesting, or B) have decided they're comfortable in their rut. But I should shut up because I've been beating this drum here for two years to little avail, and I'm probably just irritating people -- not least of all myself -- at this point.
I am not irritated.
I have only lived here (Phoenix) for 14 years, but do recall some very good, to great restaurants, and many levels. What I encountered is almost gone. "Stuff" happens, and chefs head off. With the resorts (once a bastion of good chefs, and interesting restaurants) the bean counters hold sway. Unfortunately, in Phoenix, I think that many of those were very slow on the uptake, and ended up being a few years late. The time of the "expense account steakhouse" has passed. Just like CEO's flying up to Yountville to have lunch at The French Laundry, and six-year verticals of Screaming Eagle @ US $ 3,000 per bottle. The "glory days" may well be behind us. To replace a more local, chef-driven restaurant with some faceless steakhouse, where the mains start at US $ 65, is not what I think that we need more of. Especially when the "celebrity chef" has never even been to the property.
Maybe that is why I still support restaurants, such as Cowboy Ciao, and NOCA. Yes, some of my favorite chefs are history, but they still manage to get fun food onto the plate, and onto my table.
Hunt, lamenting to much here