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: To say my experience at noca was the same experience every diner has had/will have there would be a bit naïve – I know for a fact there were special circumstances tilting the tables in my favor, but with that said it isn’t like I was receiving “off item” specials or anything the rest of the room couldn’t order and in that case I’ll simply say that anyone can and should go to noca with the expectation that whatever they order will be made from the finest ingredients and prepared with an adept hand by a skilled chef. 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.