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December 22, 2009

Noca

Raw Scallop with Lemon Oil, Smoked Salt and Celery Dominic Armato

I have this friend named Ronnie. I'd call him a virtual friend, but that would imply that he wasn't really a friend, or that he didn't actually exist. Ronnie is, in fact, a friend and he is, in fact, flesh and blood (as far as I know), and what I mean to get across is that, sadly, I've yet to meet him in person. He's a fellow food nerd and all-around exemplary chap with whom I've had occasion to trade an awful lot of banter over the past few years. We've always meant to break bread, but circumstances have conspired against us.

So, last summer, while my wife and I were planning a trip to Phoenix to visit her family, I dropped Ronnie a line since I'd heard he might have some intel on a new place with big potential. That new place was Noca, about to be opened by an old friend of Ronnie's, Eliot Wexler. With the appropriate caveat that Eliot was his pal and he was probably a little biased, Ronnie told me that the place was shaping up to be something really special, and I might want to check it out. As it turned out, my ladylove and I couldn't free up a third night, we were extremely excited about our plans for the first two, and so we decided to save Noca for our next trip.

Then Noca was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant, it pulled down a win from the Arizona Republic for the same, and generally earned gobs of praise from everybody who got near the place. And I spent the better part of 2009 kicking myself.

So, needless to say, Noca was at the top of our dance card in bold, neon letters for this past week's trip. And Ronnie, incredibly swell fellow that he is, treated us to a fabulous dinner, despite the fact that we'd passed on his advice the first time around. Note to self: When Ronnie says to check a place out, check it out.

Poached Citrus with FennelDominic Armato

I was a little amused by Noca's location -- at the risk of angering those whose fair city I'll shortly be calling home -- because it somehow struck me as so appropriately Phoenix for a restaurant like this to be buried in the corner of a strip mall, sitting quietly in the shadow of a gargantuan Safeway. I'm no stranger to the strip mall restaurant. I'm firmly of the conviction that they contain some of the greatest eating treasures to be found in any city. But suffice it to say that I typically expect strip mall finds to be those of the cheap and/or ethnic variety, so this particular play on convention brought me a little smile. It also, oddly enough, struck me as a good sign. Perhaps it's different in the desert, but it seems to me that most image-conscious restaurateurs would balk at putting this level of cuisine next to a supermarket. Intentional or not, what this said to me was, "Who gives a damn about a sexy location? It's all about the food, baby." Of course, the concrete jungle ends abruptly at the front door, and what's inside is the kind of stylish space you'd expect when you glance at the menu. Open kitchen, angled mirror on the wall so you can see it from anywhere in the restaurant, exposed bulbs, a number of high tops, enough bustle to be lively without being distracting... too much about the space already. On to the important stuff.

Hirame TartareDominic Armato

We made our reservation about a month in advance, and only two days before our dinner did we happen to discover that the evening featured a special white truffle tasting menu. And before we could express our delight, we were informed that that's what Ronnie had selected for us that evening. Not that it should come as any surprise that we were operating on the same wavelength, but a lovely happenstance, nonetheless. We started off with a couple of amuses, served successively. The first was a slice of raw scallop with lemon oil, celery brunoise and a touch of smoked salt. I loved the combination of flavors, especially since, as of late, I've been rediscovering celery as a featured flavor rather than the subtle building block role to which it's usually consigned. It was a delicious bite, though I was sad to have lost the scallop a little bit. Scallop may be my most favored raw sea critter, and I thought the spoon needed a little less accompaniment or a little more scallop. Still delicious, however, and my complaints ended there -- not for the dish, but for the meal.

Butter Poached Lobster with SalsifyDominic Armato

Our second amuse was bright and explosive, a segment of grapefruit poached in something I was too stricken by to identify, with more celery (though a different cut -- detail!), sliced baby fennel and a lone pomegranate seed. Citrus and fennel is, of course, a time-honored tradition, but this bite was a thrilling little riff thereon. A spectacular amuse, and I'd love to know more about how it was done. This amuse gave way to our first official course of the evening, a hirame tartare with lemon oil, crème fraîche, slices of Seckel pear and a scattering of microgreens, with toast point escorts. It was a clean and refreshing dish, taking the right tack of pairing beautiful raw fish with just a couple of complementary flavors to draw out its character. The toast points? Completely unnecessary. I pretended that half of the plate wasn't there and simply enjoyed how the crème fraîche brought out the raw fish's creaminess while the pear highlighted its sweetness.

Ricotta and Chicken Yolk RavioloDominic Armato

Next up, a supplementary course disingenuously described as "optional" (are we not obligated, as food lovers, not to pass on the lobster?). Butter-poached lobster, both tail and claw, were supported by salsify presented two ways, as a creamy puree and caramelized slices. A hint of vanilla, a light roasted onion sauce, a microplaned white truffle toupee and hooooooly cow, that's a good dish. This was one to get lost in, sweet and delicious and harmonious and all-encompassing, I've no doubt it'll stick with me for quite some time. From an intellectual standpoint, I loved how the same base vegetable brought two different characteristics to the dish, and I loved that the lobster tail was just one tiny tick right of center on the uncooked/cooked scale. But two bites in, my intellect got a little delirious and forgot why the dish was so damn good. Epic win.

NY Strip with Gnocchi and BordelaiseDominic Armato

The photo of our next course lacks all sense of scale, so I'll just tell you that this raviolo was a big'un. Six inches in diameter wouldn't surprise me, though I didn't bust out the measuring tape, with a core the size of a hockey puck. But while that last comparison is generally used in derogatory fashion when it comes to food, there's no such intention here. It was simply big, a ricotta and egg yolk raviolo with brown butter sauce and more microplaned truffle. The pasta was perfect, fresh with excellent bite and the ricotta was some lovely, airy product that struck me as a little overly abundant until my second bite when -- punchline -- I hit the egg yolk that I wasn't expecting since I didn't look at the menu very carefully. Hidden in the center is a perfectly poached egg yolk that comes rushing out to bathe the pasta and cheese when you puncture it. Of course, while this prompts the inevitable comparison to Michael Carlson's de facto signature dish over at Schwa, I'm hesitant to declare a victor. Noca's is somehow more brash and plentiful and decadent though no more lovable, as though two skilled chefs were working from the same playbook and managed to do beautiful things with it. So while the novelty was lost on me, here's yet another dish that was flat-out good, fresh and rich and -- absolutely key -- salty enough to keep it lively.

Salted Butter Ice CreamDominic Armato

Our meaty course was another that made my brain a little giddy, as smart touches came together to make an unusually compelling whole. Steak is, so often, steak. Even in creative restaurants, it's a tough rut to break out of. But Chris Curtiss -- the chef whose name I'm a little embarrassed to have neglected mentioning up until this point -- made a NY strip light and appealing while still maintaining that beefy essence. Thick slices were fanned over melted onions and a restrained application of bordelaise that looked as though it had been strained about seventeen times. The brilliant little touches, however, started with the gnocchi -- potato-based, Parisian style and pan-fried to a deep golden exterior crisp, adding a depth of flavor and the perfect textural aspect to the dish. The other touch, which had me doing little backflips, was a single nugget of battered and crisply fried marrow, a succulent little treasure trove that I strove to stretch into as many bites as possible. Bordelaise is often served with a bit of the marrow that helped to create it, but having a crisp, hot fried shell surrounding that unctuous goo was a first for me, and I loved it.

Cotton CandyDominic Armato

To finish, yet another strong dessert for somebody who typically doesn't get all that excited about them. I'm still trying to figure out whether it's the desserts that are changing or me, but I've been atypically entranced by far too many this past year to consider it anything short of a trend. The star here was a salted butter ice cream, set atop shortbread and drizzled with truffle honey. The frozen centerpiece was delightfully creamy, the salt is always a welcome addition to the sweet in my book, the shortbread was light and moist for the breed, but not without maintaining texture and density, and the honey just put it over the top.

A Devils Tower of cotton candy -- apparently Richard Dreyfuss is the pastry chef and has graduated from mashed potatoes to spun sugar -- provided a playful finish and a little time to reflect. This was a great meal. Curtiss isn't gilding the lily, but his creative juices are flowing and his technique is on point. And even more striking than this creative and bold but ingredient-focused and comforting style was the fact that it produced a menu that was so strong, start to finish. To have a dish as good as some of these isn't entirely uncommon. I can think of favorites from meals throughout the year that I enjoyed as much. But to have such an unfaltering series of dishes -- to have a lengthy dinner exclusively comprised of peaks -- is, indeed, an uncommon experience. Though I love the idea of becoming a regular somewhere, I find it hard to settle down with a favorite restaurant. Our nights out have been so infrequent and my list of must-trys so lengthy that I'm almost always driven to go someplace new when we have the opportunity. But if Noca is always this consistently delicious, we're going to be spending a lot of time there.

Noca
www.restaurantnoca.com
3118 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
602-956-6622
Tue - Sat5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Mon5:30 PM - 10:00 PM  (Dec - Mar only)

Comments

My husband and I were there the same evening as you and my only variation from your experience was I selected the John Dory as my main course (I do not eat beef).

Unfortunately, it and it alone was the clunker of the meal. I loved the setup it came with but the fish--whoa. The fish was not just disappointing in comparison to the rest of the truly lovely meal, it was poorly executed and sat sadly to the side of my plate.

Luckily the rest of the meal was a pure delight. Noca is definitely a splurge place, it is rather expensive (especially for a strip mall!), but one we will return to again.

Ah, that's too bad about the John Dory. I'm a fan and would ordinarily have chosen it, but with a crudo and lobster coming before it, we went with the meaty option. Guess that turned out to be the right call.

I hesitated to talk about the strip mall location, because it seems like such a meaningless thing to mention. I couldn't care less about where they put the place, nor does my value assessment have anything to do with the location, I just found it kind of amusing and thought it bore mentioning. I hope nobody reads more into that than I intended. It could have been located INSIDE the Safeway, and I doubt my opinion would have changed much, if at all :-)

Since you raise price, for others' edification, it's certainly not cheap, but it doesn't strike me as a big splurge place, either (obviously YMMV when it comes to what constitutes a "splurge"). Minus the optional lobster course ($18 and worth every penny) and supplemental truffle charges, this was a $70 menu. Not inexpensive in the least, but not at all ridiculous for two amuses, a crudo, pasta, steak and dessert. On the regular menu, starters are in the low to mid teens, pasta mains in the low 20s and other mains at $30 or pushing it. It's also probably worth noting that on Sunday, they do their "Simple Suppers," which are essentially three course prix fixe menus for $35. I haven't yet partaken, but if the quality's on par, that's a pretty good deal. I'd certainly be curious to hear about others' experience with the Sunday menus, but failing that, I intend to try them out myself before long :-)

I would have expected the lobster course to have been served on a hot dog bun. What was the chef thinking?!?!?!?

Ha... Gilmore, you have no idea how close that came to actually happening. Our reservation was originally for Wednesday. We had to move it to Thursday because of other plans. Noca's regular Wednesday night special is... drum roll... a lobster roll :-)

I suppose price is relative. By NYC standards it is a steal. For PHX, a little steep. And I suppose my main point of comparison was Bacchanalia in Atlanta. About the same price point as what we walked out of Noca with, but a far superior experience.

Don't get me wrong, it was really good food, but still a little off on the price/value equation. Maybe if the JDory had been better.....

Oh, I agree, Draz... if one of my dishes had been a clunker, I might have felt differently about whether I was getting value for my (read: Ronnie's) dollar. At that price point, even if everything isn't exceptional, I expect everything to at least be on. Thankfully, everything I had was :-)

I love salisfy. Its one of those strictly foodie veggies. Sounds like you had it to the nth degree. My wife would just see it as in the way of the lobster, though.

I feel like there are about three or four non-residential city blocks in Phoenix that aren't occupied by strip malls, so I guess it makes sense that the nice restaurants are located there too.

For DRAZ and Dom -- In your opinion, at what point, in a high class joint such as you are describing here, does one send the dish back? Seems to me like DRAZ's John Dory might have been routed back to the kitchen???

Recently ate here on march 3rd and it was delicious.
Enjoyed a duck confit salad and a nice piece of sea bass. others got the strip and it tasted great.

Another place you should try is Modern Steak. the appetizers were amazing, including a kobe beef hot dog and a crab dish that was pent up in butter and truffle oil for half a day before enjoying it.

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