when i'm in town now, i usually drive right from the airport to meet friends at noca. last month, we were there on the same night as the four peaks tasting menu but decided to skip it, which was a mistake. so when my trip coincided with the heirloom tomato tasting, we knew it was on. Infact, we'd planned to do the new Bar Bites menu, but it wasn't running with the tasting.
For 50$ + $25 wine supplement we thought the meal looked phenomenal, and a steal. Unfortunately, I have the liver of a squirrel, so details as the night go on will become a little vague. as in "i vaguely remember the trip from noca to my car".
Amuse Bouche- tomato marinated strawberry with basil dust. Occasionally these amuse bouches miss the mark, but if i had been slayed mere moments after the strawberry by a random flock of north flying birds, i'd have died with a smile on my face (and likely a drop or two of tomato coulis).
Big Eye Tuna Crudo- this was an addition and SO DARN HAPPY we did it. 5-6 generous slices of tuna that if left on the plate too long would likely melt into a happy pool of raw goodness. Of course, tomatoes are the additional element. Many elements of the dinner would involve tomato "essence". Juice would be the wrong word, bringing to mind thick, viscous stuff we buy in cans. This was a translucent ruby red liquid that floated over the tuna.
Gazpacho- perfectly smooth, with a little preserved lemon. Of note- it was perfectly acidic without being TOO vinegar-y. I love gazpacho, but too often its too salty, or it feels like the vinegar is thrown in last minute. as with all noca dishes, this was a marriage of two flavors...
We guess the wine is a riesling, for it is white, sweet, and goes perfectly.
Pasta- a generous for a tasting menu side portion of pasta w pancetta, tomato sauce and basil is brought to us. Again, this is a marriage. The pasta does not have sauce dripping off it or pooled in the bowl. This sauce was holding on for dear life to that pasta, and for good reason. It was al dente, with a good bite and no gumminess, and the tomato sauce was light and bright, with a mellow flavor, highlighted by the pancetta. More white wine, also sweet, with a name no one, including our waiter, can pronounce. So as not to point out waiters pronunciation deficiency, we drink it all. Atleast one of us is officially no longer able to drive.
I'd say a bit sadly, we both chose the halibut over the steak option for the main. I'd say it was sad, but the halibut was so perfectly cooked, it would have been a crime for one of us to miss it. I now live someplace with fish that jumps from the boat into our restaurants, and yet, it speaks to how much one can do with ingredients that no one has ever made halibut taste like this. A crusty and crisp exterior with a meltingly soft but cooked through flakiness inside. A tomato sauce that is smoky perfection -rumor is they smoked them all day in grape leaves from the winery- is the perfect foil. What can only be described as a hush puppy or hash browns accompanies them with a sweet onion compote on top. The potato, too, has the perfect crispy exterior and a flaky but soft inside. Again, the portion is highly generous. And to top it off, on the side is some perfect green tomatoes and burrata. So as not to offend the chef, we lick our plates clean. This is accompanied by a light-medium red who'd name, unfortunately, was told to me at the exact same time I thought to myself, "should I get up and hug my waiter or not get up for fear of falling over?"
FYI- our companion ordered the steak frites, which arrives at this point. It is great, as usual. She mourns a bit for missing the tomatoes. We consider throwing a small tomato at her to mock her, but don't want to waste it.
At this juncture, we notice some people to our right with... what is that? a TOMATO martini? they graciously allow us to taste it (who doesn't induldge charmingly drunk chicks?) and decide these must be an addition. They're off menu, we just got lucky.
Cotton candy the color of pepto arrives and as usual we all partake. We have taken over our portion of the bar, and I'm pretty sure an alcohol interventionist has been paged.
We move onto dessert, which is a chilled gazpacho with a sorbet and lemon granita. It is served with a dessert wine. We are two handing the glasses at this point. When mixed together, we decide dessert tastes a lot like the popsicles you used to get off the ice cream truck as kids. The tomato part is really mellow, which I personally enjoy and might be nice as a soup in and of itself. The cream almost ruins it for me, making this my least favorite dish, but that is like saying London is my least favorite country in the EU. They're all still pretty damn cool. Also: definitively too drunk too say no to pretty much anything.
Which is why it seems the perfect time to order those martinis. It becomes obvious that this is infact, the perfect drink. A gin purist, you can't argue with vodka when it tastes like this. Again, that perfect tomato essence, married to the vodka in a way that makes you think this is the drink that could bring the middle east to a quick peace. The rim has a perfect basil dust that makes you drool a bit as its carried in your direction. I am almost positive my review of this perfection is not at all influenced by the fact that my liver has started a petition.
If you've never been at NOCA as its closing down for the evening, next time you should try to hang out. The flavor of the air changes as people wind down. Curtis comes out, cranberry vodka in hand, pasta in the other and talks to us about passion, food, and lots of tomatoes. . Eliot swings by and we talk about the NOCA website. Our waiter offers to Riverdance (I am almost positive this happened at the restaurant and not in my later, sulfite infused dreams.)
People say you can't buy happiness, but for $115, I say NOCA gives it a good run. I am no one famous- I'm certainly not in NOCA all that often- this marked my fourth or fifth trip. But the staff greets me by name, they remember details about where I live, what I do, what I like. They take the time to make sure I feel welcome, warm and dare I say, embraced at NOCA. And my experience is nothing special, frankly. And THAT is what defines NOCA. They don't just elevate food, they elevate people.
As the first year twinkle wear off at NOCA< its my pasionate hope that Phonecians continue to embrace it as a gem. NOCA isn't merely the best that Phx has to offer, it may indeed be the best that American gastronomy has to offer.