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[PHX] Restaurant NOCA Review [Long]


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[PHX] Restaurant NOCA Review [Long]

Bill Hunt | Sep 15, 2008 08:47 AM

After a bit of reading in the “Arizona Republic,” and on this board, I came up with the idea that we needed to try NOCA. My wife had the same idea, totally separately from me. Matter of fact, it was she, who told me to make the reservations. This normally does not happen, as it is I, who is pushing to try this spot, or that. As we had a weekend “off,” we chose Saturday night and an 8:00PM seating. Though they are not (yet) on OpenTable, a quick phone call, about a week out, secured reservations for a party of two.

Though we have been fans of the cooking of Chef Jeffery Beason, since we moved to the Valley, we had missed his tenure at Elevé Actually, we missed Elevé completely, sorry to say. We also missed his brief consulting chef role at Basis New American Restaurant. Luckily, my wife knew the location, as I had the mistaken impression that it was on the corner of E Camelback and 16th. Not sure where this geographic challenge came into play, but hey, she was driving, so we arrived at exactly 8:00PM, and were able to park one row away. As an observation, I found it odd that so many autos were parked in the driveway of this shopping center, blocking one lane. Either people could not walk an extra few steps, or felt the need to block traffic, so they could look at their autos. Also, maybe the entire parking lot was filled, when they arrived, but somehow I doubt it. At 8:00PM, there were easily a hundred spots scattered about. However, I see the same thing at AJ’s, where people will drive, practically into the front doors, and block pedestrian traffic, so they don’t have to walk more than a few steps to go shopping.

As we approached the restaurant, it was not immediately clear where we entered. While we surveyed the various doors, etc., a very nice gentleman exited from the restaurant and held the appropriate gate open for us. This was Mr Wexler, the founder of the restaurant. About the time that he opened that gate, I saw the sign on it. We’d have found it, but not until a survey of the location was complete. He greeted us, and introduced himself, welcoming us to NOCA. He explained that he was in the process of developing an al fresco dining spot, on the sidewalk, but had to do things by “code.” Once inside, I gave our name to James, who I assume is the GM. As I talked to Mr. Wexler, James seated my wife, right behind the host/hostess counter. This was in a banquet area, with a two-top and had L-shaped bench seating. Down this line, there were about 10 4-tops, with banquet and chair seating. The dining area is open to the kitchen, with 4-tops occupying the central area, banquet along the north wall and a counter to the open kitchen. There is an alcove to the rear of the restaurant, with a circular table, that looked like it could seat 12.

The lighting was a bit on the dim side. Because of sheer laziness, I had not put in my contacts, so my “reading glasses” would not work. I was able to read much of the menu, but the GM had an LED flashlight for my wife, and for the wine list. I guess that it’s time to get bi-focals, or tri-focals, for when I don’t use my contacts and my 2.00 reading glasses. Getting old is a problem.

The area had a modern look, with some neat chandeliers in the middle of the ceiling. However, the track lighting on the periphery was just not quite enough. During the evening, I made some comments on adding soft spots over each table, and James indicated that what we were experiencing was a real “work in progress.” He indicated that the lighting would be addressed in the changes, along with the seating in the alcove area.

The restaurant was almost 100% full, and with the open kitchen, it was a bit noisy. This was nothing outrageous, as we could converse in normal tones across the 2-top. Given the galley layout and the open kitchen, I dobut that there is much that could be done to quiet the place much. As some of the crush of diners exited, the noise level went down considerably. I didn't bring a db meter, so I cannot offer readings, but I'd say a full-swing, it was about 10-12 db below a favorite restaurant of ours, Cowboy Ciao - great food and wine, but is it ever loud! I also think that younger diners will enjoy the "vibe" here. I'm afraid that if I were to design my ultimate restaurant, it would have the acoustics of a recording studio. That is what one gets for being an old fud! Here, there was a slight "bistro" feel, which plays off of the open kitchen. There are even a few higher "bistro-styled" tables, not far from the rear alcove.

Once seated, our service began with very friendly folk offering us water from a wire-stoppered bottle. “Double filtered,” the server stated, as he poured. Our main server, Robert, approached with our menus, and asked about a drink order. He pointed out that the wine list was on the back pages, with the b-t-g selections first. I asked for a few minutes to look over the menu and the wines, but indicated that since it was just the two of us, we’d probably go with the b-t-g selections. The menus are on a small clipboard. This was an interesting touch, but I felt the need to un-clip the pages and lay them out, rather than flip them. This design makes for easy changes, as the menu is said to change often. It was also "neat" looking, but less than an ergonomic delight in my old hands. Maybe having to hold the pages to a light was at odds to the design, but I've addressed that elsewhere.

I had looked at the on-line menu, so I had an idea of what we would possibly order, though some things had changed - no black cod! Oh well, we started discussing our orders. As usual, my wife was vacillating between courses, that would need totally different wines. This is what I usually go through, but even though she’s “high maintenance,” she’s a wonderful lady. Finally, initial selections were made, and I opted for an ‘06 Saintsbury CA Chardonnay for her, and an ‘06 Raphael Palacios Louro de Bolo Godello for me.

About the time that the wine arrived, we were served pop-overs and butter. The wines were served in a carafe and a taste of each was offered. To me, this is a nice touch, as I've stated in many threads on the CH Wine Board. The stemware was Rona, which looks and feels rather like Riedel Vinum Extreme. Except for the tiny roll on the lip and the feel of the stem, I would have been fooled. Still, very nice, and nicely sized stemware. I’m not familiar with the Rona line, but was impressed. They felt good in the hand, and performed well. They appear to be a nice choice. I will remember these, and recommend them to many other restaurants, especially in the Deep South, where US$600 wines are served in “jelly jars,” not fitting for a bag-in-a-box wine! Though I do not own any of the Vinum Extreme glasses, I have encountered them many times in restaurants. I’m a tad more of a “traditionalist,” with regard to my stemware, but these worked very well. I enjoyed the larger bowl, even for our white wines. Maybe I’m a pushover for the Riedel “party line,” or maybe I’ve just come to expect stemware similar to what I serve our everyday wine in, but I enjoy a large bowl, a nice tight rim and good balance. These offered all of those. I didn’t “ping” the bowl to hear the note, but they were as good as most, and better than many.

Now, the whites were a tad cold. James noticed me cupping the bowl of both whites in my hand, as I attempted to warm them up a bit. We discussed the problem with patrons demanding their white wines being just above freezing, especially in AZ. I shared that I more often ask for an ice bucket for my reds, and place my whites on the table to warm up a bit. I do not envy restaurants, that know what temp most wines *should* be served at, especially when patrons think that “room temp for reds” equates to US “room temps” of 85̊F. For me, many whites should be at about 55̊F and most reds around 60̊F. It is a rare restaurant, where I’ll get something similar, without first asking. At home, my reds come out of my cellar at 55̊F and quickly warm up in the AZ warmth. As an aside, whites served too cold offer occluded tastes and aromas. This works with cheap “house wines,” where the proprietor does not want the patrons to actually taste the wines. When reds are served too hot, all one gets is the alcohol. That a wine tastes “hot” is true on two different levels. Were I the sommelier, or a restauranteur, I’d go for what is really best, an then offer ice buckets for those patrons, who think they know better, or desire different temps. However, I am neither, so the point is rendered moot. These were not bold problems, but I understand where they were coming from. I’d try to educate the populace, then accommodate them, in any other way possible. Such must be the life of owning a restaurant.

OK, we’ve got the pop-overs, the butter and our white wines warming in our hands. First, the pop-overs were good. They were yeasty and light. However, they would have benefitted from being warm. My wife brought this to my attention, and I agreed with her. I do not know the source of these pastries, but a little warmth would have gone a long way to kicking them up that extra notch - kina’ like the white wines. The butter was perfect, served in a “bell” at a usable temp. My wife pointed out that they use the same “butter bells,” that we do.

The Saintsbury Chardonnay was new to me. I know their Pinot Noirs and their “Garnet” red. It was a bit “grapey,” though OK. I’d have loved to have had a b-t-g FR Chard, like a Meursault, or a Montrachet to choose from. The Saintsbury was the top-of-the-list for the b-t-g whites, but just didn’t come up to their PN’s. I’d remove it from the list, were I responsible for those duties. On the other hand, my Gordello was “killer.” What a wonderful white! Maybe I missed the boat, by ordering my wife the Chard, though she’s a fan - from the most flinty Chablis to the Le Montrachet and the biggest Corton Charlemagne. Plus, she enjoys many more domestic Chards, than do I, especially the really big ones. Given the fare that we saw on the menu, I’d add a Meursault to wine list for the b-t-g selections. I love eclectic wine lists, so long as they match with the kitchen’s offerings. This wine was not one of my favs, however the list looks great for the fare.

Our amuse bouche arrived, and it was presented well. This was an organic egg salad w/ crispy chorizo and chives. It was served in those little white spoons, that one encounters in Oriental restaurants, for soups. In addition, this spoon rested in a porcelain holder. Great amuse and a nice touch. The Gordello was the hit with this offering. The Saintsbury less so. Note: egg is tough to pair with any wine.

While we’re on the flatware rests subject, I have to say that I liked the look and the function of the stone utensil rest on the table. It looked elegant, and was functional. However, it did occupy a bit of space on our 2-top. Gotta’ remember that we were also having a couple of wines, so we probably had more “stuff” on our table, than most. I kept moving this, to make sure that nothing was placed half-on and half-off. Loved the look, but it did hold my attention, when placing wine glasses down.

I’d gone with the Chilled White Corn Soup with baby carrots, chorizo croquettes and toasted paprika oil, as my starter course and my wife had chosen the Lobster Raviolo with braised artichoke hearts, arugula and lobster cream. I’ll chalk up my surprise with the corn soup to the lighting, when reading the menu. The chill was a surprise to me. “Waiter, my soup is cold... “ OK, wife, with the flashlight, had read each word and knew. The soup was excellent, regardless of my surprise. I have only had but a few corn soups/chowders, that matched this one, and most cost at least 2x the price. The Godello went wonderfully with it. The Chardonnay - not so well again. This would have been a great place for a nice FR Chard. Corn and Chardonnay have an affinity for each other. The Saintsbury, however, missed the boat. I have to comment on the chorizo croquettes. They were wonderful. No other way to describe them. I think I could have made do with a plate full of these little guys. I managed to give up ONE for my wife to taste. She loved it too.

The Chard went a bit better with my wife’s Lobster Raviolo, but still had both of us wanting. I could have dredged up a dozen bottles of domestic Chard and many dozens of FR Chards from my cellar, that would have been bliss. Note to self: do not order any Saintsbury Chard - stick to their PN’s.

The two presentations were very nice. However, it was about this time that I realized that our 2-top was a bit high. I’m right at 6', provided that I remember the early admonitions, “Do not slouch!” My wife is about 5'-1" on a good day. She actually used my normal line about a “booster chair.” The bowl of Corn Soup is high-sided, and lovely, but with our table, made it a bit tall to eat gracefully. When I passed the bowl to my wife, I wanted to ask for a telephone book, so she could see over the lip of the bowl. Now, normally we do not pass bowls/plates, though we do share tastes of our dishes. With a soup, it’s not easy to do it otherwise. I could barely see her over the bowl, in this case. About this time, I started looking at table heights. I know that one female diner thought I was trying to look beneath her clothing, but I was trying to determine if our table was high, or our seats were low. Seems that it was the table. It was the tallest in the restaurant. Even for me, it made the soup, with its lovely bowl, a bit of a challenge.

I need to note two things here: because of our attire, black napkins were provided - a really nice touch. Next, because we used our utensiles a lot with our tasting each other's dishes, all used items were quickly replaced with the end of each course. This is something that I cannot get my Country Club servers to do! Nice touches that should be expected in this level of restaurant, but are often overlooked. Not at NOCA.

Enough about the wine and our table, my wife’s Lobster Raviolo was excellent. Besides the lobster filling in the Raviolo, there were little morsels of lobster on the plate. The sauce was excellent. Gosh, I wish I’d had a Puligny-Montrachet for her. My Godello went far better, except for the artichoke hearts, but they are really hard on wines. OK, so I wasn't through talking about the wines.

As has been chronicled on Chowhound, and on many boards, I am a foie gras fan. My cardiologist can attest to this. I hardly ever pass a rendition of foie gras by - ever! I had read some reviews of NOCA’s version, and could not resist. Now, I am more a fan of a “seared” foie gras, and this was a pâté. Still, I had to do it, and was also planning on adding a glass of the Château Haut-Bergeron ‘04 Sauternes, which is the suggested b-t-g wine (another nice touch). When I had mentioned this to our server, early on in the ordering, he gave me a “wink and a nod,” and suggested that he had a treat for me. I offered that this might be a “90 Château D’Yquem,” a favorite of ours. Obviously, I was joking, but then the "joke" was on me. When the Foie Gras Torchon with peach jam, Marcona almonds, purslane and toasted brioche arrived, so did a half-bottle of ‘03 Château D’Yquem Sauternes. Since we were “sharing,” my wife was poured a “taste” of this. Immediately, I upped our order to two glasses, as my wife is a major Sauternes fan, especially any Château D’Yquem. “Nectar of the Gods,” as she typifies these. OK, it wasn't the '90, but I was highly impressed. Some years back, we were at a major tasting event, and the “Wines of the Century” were being poured One of the wines was the ‘90 Château D’Yquem. This was at 9:30AM, and many folk refused to even taste this wine, saying that, “I do not do any dessert wine!” My wife went around the room, trading her Bodegas Reyes for the Château D’Yquem. Well worth buying two full glasses! I must note that this wine is not on the regular list, for obvious reasons, but had just been opened for a staff tasting. My timing was excellent. I'd only hope that they could put it on the list. I'd also hope that enough people would spring for the price difference to justify it. We got lucky!!!

This was not my favored “seared” foie gras, but it was the best foie gras pâté, that I can recall - ever! I’ve never had one so smooth and flavorful. Flavorful is used in a positive way here, as so many are “flavorful,” but not in a really good way, for me. I love foie gras, but do not like the taste of liver. The Sauternes cut though the fat perfectly. Though the wine served was so far above the “recommended” accompanying wine, the differential per-glass was only about $8 - a real deal. At this point, I was feeling bad, as I had ordered this second course, and my wife had not. Yes, she was sharing and she did get her own glass of Château D’Yquem, but I was feeling bad. Not to worry! The chef graced us with a sampler bowl of his Spinach Mezzaluna Pasta with Ricotta, Mascarpone and Pecorino, drizzled in Balsamic vinegar. What an unexpected treat. We worked on the foie gras and the Mezzaluna, until we were worried that we’d not be able to handle our entrées. The pasta was perfect and the cheeses were melded together wonderfully. The Godello, which I had been nursing, went well with it. The Château D’Yquem was now long gone. Though we had not ordered the pasta, from our tasting dish, I’d highly recommend it. By now, my wife’s Saintsbury was gone, as well.

It was now time for our entrées, and we had chosen the Barramundi (wife) with shrimp and corm fritter, house-made bacon, lobster mushrooms and shallot jus. I had opted for the Duck Breast with creamed corn, baby turnips, baby carrots, broccoli rabe, applewood smoked bacon and pickled huckleberries. Of these, my Duck Breast was the better. The Barramundi was cooked skin-on. Though the skin was well-seared, there was a bit too much of a “fishy” taste. Wife had hoped of the Black Cod. I loved the corn fritter and the accompaniment items. We both love fish, but there was just a bit too much of that “fishy” taste in this dish. Others might well have loved it completely. It was also our first taste of this Australian fish, so we have nothing to compare it to.

My duck was almost perfect. Had the duck been seared just a moment more (like the barramundi skin), to crisp the skin and the subcutaneous fat layer, it would have reached the height of Chef Vincent’s (PHX), or Chef Frank Brigtsen’s (NOLA). As it was, it was very good, but fell just short of perfect. My suggestion would be to sear it a moment longer, and render that subcutaneous fat. That said, I loved the bacon. For a moment, I thought that it was a perfectly cooked pork cheek. It was absolutely wonderful. I’d have loved to have had a bowl of it! All of my accompaniments and sides, were great. I got my USDA recommendation for the daily allowance of corn, but loved it. Maybe my ideal meal would have been the foie gras and a bowl each of the chorizo crouquettes and the bacon?

For our last wines, I chose the Maysara Jamsheed ‘06 OR Pinot Noir for my wife, and the Cossentino The Zin ‘05 CA Zinfandel. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to do a Central Coast PN for the wife, like a Brewer-Clifton and a N. Rhône Syrah, like an Hermitage, for my duck. Still, the Zin went well and the PN was OK. I did not know this producer, and was a tad disappointed in it. Normally, when all but the lightest white fishes are the entrées, I love PN’s and various Syrahs/Shiraz wines. This one just missed. While the Zin was the better, a bit more “earth” would have been appreciated.

We had hoped to do the “Doughnut Holes” with three dipping sauces, but could not even consider these. Still, we were presented with a large plate of “cotton candy.” This was an interesting touch. We were probably too full to adequately enjoy this extra treat. It WAS a lovely and interesting presentation. We declined coffees and even a Graham’s Tawny Port. as I had a bottle of freshly opened Taylor-Fladgate 20 year Tawny Port and a Cohiba Siglo IV from some country south of Florida, whose name I will refrain from mentioning. Besides, we were driving, and had not planned on our normal towncar service. Who knew that we’d be having so much fun?

Along with the check (about US$200 + generous tip on everything), we received a couple of “wedge cookies,” that turned out to be delightful the next night.

Was it perfect? Not quite, as mentioned above. Was it a good value? A resounding yes. I’d like to see a few changes, but most of these were hinted at, as coming in the near future. One thing that I’d love to see would be either a much broader b-t-g selection (ain’t a cheap endeavor, and might not be appreciated by most patrons), or a broad half-bottle selection. Again, this is something that wino couples gravitate towards, but if you have a party of four, or more, you might not even notice. On the main wine lists (there is a “High Roller” page, that equates to the “Reserve” list), I’d like to see some more depth, especially with regards to FR wines. Right now, the interesting regular list tops out at about US$100, and the “High Roller” list starts at about US$300. There is a gap. When doing full bottles, we normally are in the US$150-200 range. This is totally missing. I would hope that the wine lists would be rolled into one, and the gap filled with a lot of fine wines, that would marry well with the kitchen’s output. Remember, NOCA is very new and is still a “work in progress.”

I’d love to see NOCA add a full Chef’s Tasting Menu and also a Sommelier’s Pairing Menu. The food is innovative and well prepared. The menu that we encountered (changes frequently) was interesting and well-done. The wine list did not include the “usual suspects” (a good thing for me), but needs a bit of expansion and tweaking, IMO. If one is not a wino, then all will probably be perfect. Hey, add the Château D’Yquem, and maybe I 'll just keep my mouth shut!

While not perfect, it was very good. I plan on returning soon. I hope that the plans can come to fruition, but I will be patient. The food, and the gracious service are worth playing along for, while they find their equilibrium. I found it to be a very good value. Are they unique to the PHX market? Maybe not, but they do everything really well. One might find something more innovative elsewhere, but taken as a whole dining experience, I highly recommend NOCA. Eliot Wexler and Exec. Chef Chris Curtiss are turning out some great food in a fun location.

Links: (watch for line break, or use: )


3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

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