(Full disclosure: Noca owner Eliot Wexler is a good friend of mine and I did get comped on my cocktail)
When it was clear that my friends and I would be getting together in Phoenix over Thanksgiving, I knew that I had to bring them to Noca, the year-old restaurant owned by my good friend Eliot Wexler, written about by me here. Since it opened, Noca has received much critical acclaim and a number of honors and awards including being named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Best New Restaurant in the United States for 2009. Aside from wanting to see my friend, Eliot, again, I felt Noca was the perfect choice for a group like this. Knowing Eliot, I know that the restaurant uses top quality ingredients. The dishes chef Christopher Curtiss makes are interesting to more sophisticated diners, yet remain accessible to those who may be a bit more finicky. While not inexpensive, the price point remains an excellent value for the quality.
Knowing that the lighting at the dining tables leaves a bit to be desired for culinary photography, I arrived a little before my friends to take some photos at the pass and to video Chef Curtiss preparing a couple of dishes. While waiting for my friends and family to arrive for our reservation, Eliot treated me to a cocktail. I had a Thai Martini, that incorporated jalapeño infused Vodka with lemongrass and Thai basil for a satisfying result.
Once everyone arrived, we were seated at a table overlooking the busy open kitchen. Each of us ordered an appetizer and an entree. In between I arranged for a tasting of all the pastas on the menu. I had the “Duo of Crudo” appetizer consisting of fluke with citrus, ponzu jalapeño tempura, watermelon radish and rice “krunchies” and hamachi with Seckel pear, ginger crème fraiche and smoked paprika oil. This was one of the dishes I videotaped Chef Curtiss making. It looked good not to order and it was. The combinations worked well individually and as a dual unit. While adding flavor and texture none of the supporting elements overwhelmed the essential flavor and freshness of the fish. Unfortunately, while I did video the dish being made, I failed to get any good still photos of the plate.
Out of the other appetizers available, the foie gras was clearly the biggest star. The dish was seared artisan foie gras with Arkansas black apple brunoise, pomegranate seeds and apple cider reduction. It was an excellent combination that added depth while avoiding the overt sweetness present in many contemporary foie dishes. The other appetizers ordered were well received though I did not try them. Our garnacha blanca proved to be a lovely option for this course.
The pasta dishes were ordered to share with one Organic chicken egg yolk raviolo with ricotta, pecorino and sage brown butter per couple and two plates each of the Spinach Tortellini, Maine Lobster Gnocchi and the Pappardelle with Red Wine Braised Duck shared amongst the 9 of us. The pastas were all delicious with the pappardelle being the favorite of the table as a whole. My favorite was the lobster gnocchi. That dish consisted of shredded and diced lobster meat with braised artichoke hearts, crispy gnocchi and lobster cream. The flavor was provided by the lobster while the crisped gnocchi added a pleasant textural contrast. The raviolo was a very good example of a classic dish, though not quite as heart-stopping as the first time I had a similar dish at Schwa in Chicago. The tortellini were also very good, albeit not as exciting as the other pastas. It was, however, savored by the vegetarian in our group.
Speaking of our vegetarian, since the Spinach Tortellini had already been shared as part of our pasta course, and another vegetarian main course was not listed on the menu, Chef Curtiss prepared a special plate that she found quite satisfying. Everyone else was satisfied with their mains as well, each of which featured the color red, as in red meat, from land and sea. The three mains that were ordered included the Big Eye Tuna, the Flat Iron Steak and the Veal Scallopine. Each of the dishes were accompanied by interesting and tasty sides and sauces, but the one element they all have in common was that the main proteins were all cooked absolutely perfectly.
Noca's signature cotton candy arrived as a pre-dessert. That night's flavor was green apple. While I presonally do not eat much of it, it is a fun touch that adds even more of a festive note to the evening and reflects Wexler's playful nature. The desserts that followed including their famous donuts with malted milk and a lovely passion fruit and coconut dessert proved to be excellent finishers to the meal.
Noca does not have a beautiful location, nor does it have the fanciest décor. It is not the most creative restaurant in the country nor the does it serve the most opulent food. It is, however, a superb restaurant that suits a wide variety of clientele in terms of food, style and price. Wexler and Curtiss seem to have found the perfect blend for today's economy to create a restaurant that is nice, but not too nice, comfortable without downmarket, classy without being snobbish and gourmet, but approachable for all but the pickiest eaters, all at a price that provides real value. That real value extends to their wine list. While not voluminous in depth, it has sufficient variety at very reasonable prices such that oenophiles can be entertained while people just looking for a good bottle with dinner don't need to break the bank. At a little over a year since they opened, Wexler, Curtiss and their team continue to do things right. I am looking forward to visiting again next time I am in Phoenix.