Full review with pictures is in the blog.
...it would be unfair for me to say that I didn’t go into the FnB vs noca “Fried Chicken Throwdown” with high expectations – after superb meals at both restaurants in the past it seemed like a give-in that the food would be excellent and with Eliot Wexler and Pavle Milic both in attendance the hospitality was also guaranteed to wow. Considering the amount of hype surrounding the meal, all in good fun, I also expected a crowd and expedited service in order to turn tables – it is part of the reason I tend to forgo ‘event’ meals, but in this case I was willing to make an exception and pulled up to a seat at the counter – Charleen Badman to my left and Claudio Urciuoli to my right – just after 5:00pm.
With my thoughts on both of these fine restaurants, their talented chefs, and superlative staffs noted in other posts I’ll move right to the food – a $35 three course prix fixe where misinformed diners could theoretically choose something other than fried chicken for the second course plus a supplemental course of available for $8; a $55 meal with tax and tip.
House Focaccia: Served up warm this time around and excellent for mopping up sauces once again I still think noca could do better with their bread service – the brioche from the croque madame for instance, or more so the bread service that would arrive later in this very meal.
Frantoiana Soup - Assorted Fall Vegetables & Beans, EVOO: As I mentioned before, I really like both teams and although I’m not certain who was responsible for this dish I will assume it was Urciuoli given the Tuscan heritage of the bean and vegetable potage; unfortunately it just did not resonate with me at all. Earthy and aromatic to be sure, but largely lacking in spice or salt and with a slick mouthfeel that absolutely demanded bread a few bites and a bit of focaccia dunking was enough.
Mac and Cheese: The $8 side dish of the evening, also produced by Urciuoli, would unfortunately prove to be the second dud of the night and although one high profile reviewer seemed to like it the consensus amongst local gourmands (and the ladies seated next to me plus the gentleman behind me) was that this plate was not only undercooked, but also underseasoned. Featuring hefty rotelle cooked shy of al dente in a dense – and dare I say ‘gummy’ – cheese sauce lacking both boldness and brine this was another dish where a few bites was enough and even though I asked to take the leftovers home they invariably never made it past the waste canister outside.
Fried Chicken Competition Plate: Arriving as both entries served on the same plate without description of which team produced which the competition plate was a whole lot of food – two breasts, two legs, and four sides with two biscuits…and unlike the previous dishes everything was almost invariably wonderful. Beginning first with team noca (who reportedly won the competition by a single vote) the plate centered on golden brown chicken that was exquisitely juicy within and intensely crunchy with great buttermilk tones throughout and paired with spicy tomato sauce that seemed to be spiked with sriracha it was truly a great bird. Moving on to the sides, relatively standard mashed potatoes, buttery haricots vert, and a superlative honey-kissed biscuit that noca had been tweeting about all week rounded out the plate. If you ask me, drop the focaccia and talk to the boys at ideasinfood about using those biscuits year-round as the restaurant bread service.
Moving next to the FnB bird, similar but not quite as moist as that from noca, I particularly liked the manner in which Badman used a richer brine for her chicken as the bird itself carried a subtle buttermilk tone even without the breading, but with the breading not quite as crunchy I had to give it up to noca when it came time to vote. As to the sides – let’s just say I’m not a big coleslaw fan and the concept of pickling corn to a young man raised in the Midwest was quite unexpected, but the baking powder biscuit and funky giblet gravy were excellent. Left to my own devices the perfect plate on the evening would have been Urciuoli’s chicken, Badman’s gravy, and about ten more biscuits with a jar of honey.
Vanilla Cotton Candy and FnB’s butterscotch pudding: With the former a trademark piece of whimsy from noca and the later a trademark dessert of FnB that I’d had just two weeks earlier I have to say the pudding was better on this taste than I remember it being at FnB, perhaps an effect of temperature as it was cooler this time around and the nutmeg seemed more prominent. Still not on par with some of the better caramel or butterscotch puddings out there today, but a light finish to an otherwise very heavy meal.
…so with all of the above noted, I guess the final inevitable question is whether I came away from the Fried Chicken Throwdown satisfied and to that end I would have to suggest the answer is no. Generally one to avoid themed or ‘event’ meals as I personally consider dining out an event in and of itself I would have felt much happier with my $55 investment had the proceeds gone to charity or if the food had been, on the whole, truly transcendent but in the end my visit to noca that night lasted a mere 60 minutes and although the chicken was excellent I’ve had better, cheaper. A fun event to be sure and a nice way to see the collegial atmosphere of two of the valley’s best chefs I’ll be heading back to both restaurants without hesitation for as long as I live in Phoenix, but all things being equal I’m glad this wasn’t my first experience with either of them.
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