Mas Noca

(Full disclosure: Noca owner Eliot
Wexler is a good friend of mine and I did get comped on my cocktail)

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When it was clear that my friends and I
would be getting together in Phoenix over Thanksgiving, I knew that I
had to bring them to Noca, the year-old restaurant owned by my good
friend Eliot Wexler, written about by me here. Since it opened, Noca
has received much critical acclaim and a number of honors and awards
including being named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Best New
Restaurant in the United States for 2009. Aside from wanting to see
my friend, Eliot, again, I felt Noca was the perfect choice for a
group like this. Knowing Eliot, I know that the restaurant uses top
quality ingredients. The dishes chef Christopher Curtiss makes are
interesting to more sophisticated diners, yet remain accessible to
those who may be a bit more finicky. While not inexpensive, the price
point remains an excellent value for the quality.

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Knowing that the lighting at the dining
tables leaves a bit to be desired for culinary photography, I arrived
a little before my friends to take some photos at the pass and to
video Chef Curtiss preparing a couple of dishes. While waiting for my
friends and family to arrive for our reservation, Eliot treated me to
a cocktail. I had a Thai Martini, that incorporated jalapeño infused
Vodka with lemongrass and Thai basil for a satisfying result.

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Once everyone arrived, we were seated
at a table overlooking the busy open kitchen. Each of us ordered an
appetizer and an entree. In between I arranged for a tasting of all
the pastas on the menu. I had the “Duo of Crudo” appetizer
consisting of fluke with citrus, ponzu jalapeño tempura, watermelon
radish and rice “krunchies” and hamachi with Seckel pear, ginger
crème fraiche and smoked paprika oil. This was one of the dishes I
videotaped Chef Curtiss making. It looked good not to order and it
was. The combinations worked well individually and as a dual unit.
While adding flavor and texture none of the supporting elements
overwhelmed the essential flavor and freshness of the fish.
Unfortunately, while I did video the dish being made, I failed to get
any good still photos of the plate.

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Out of the other appetizers available,
the foie gras was clearly the biggest star. The dish was seared
artisan foie gras with Arkansas black apple brunoise, pomegranate
seeds and apple cider reduction. It was an excellent combination
that added depth while avoiding the overt sweetness present in many
contemporary foie dishes. The other appetizers ordered were well
received though I did not try them. Our garnacha blanca proved to be
a lovely option for this course.

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The pasta dishes were ordered to share
with one Organic chicken egg yolk raviolo with ricotta, pecorino and
sage brown butter per couple and two plates each of the Spinach
Tortellini, Maine Lobster Gnocchi and the Pappardelle with Red Wine
Braised Duck shared amongst the 9 of us. The pastas were all
delicious with the pappardelle being the favorite of the table as a
whole. My favorite was the lobster gnocchi. That dish consisted of
shredded and diced lobster meat with braised artichoke hearts, crispy
gnocchi and lobster cream. The flavor was provided by the lobster
while the crisped gnocchi added a pleasant textural contrast. The
raviolo was a very good example of a classic dish, though not quite
as heart-stopping as the first time I had a similar dish at Schwa in
Chicago. The tortellini were also very good, albeit not as exciting
as the other pastas. It was, however, savored by the vegetarian in
our group.

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Speaking of our vegetarian, since the
Spinach Tortellini had already been shared as part of our pasta
course, and another vegetarian main course was not listed on the
menu, Chef Curtiss prepared a special plate that she found quite
satisfying. Everyone else was satisfied with their mains as well,
each of which featured the color red, as in red meat, from land and
sea. The three mains that were ordered included the Big Eye Tuna, the
Flat Iron Steak and the Veal Scallopine. Each of the dishes were
accompanied by interesting and tasty sides and sauces, but the one
element they all have in common was that the main proteins were all
cooked absolutely perfectly.

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Noca's signature cotton candy arrived
as a pre-dessert. That night's flavor was green apple. While I
presonally do not eat much of it, it is a fun touch that adds even
more of a festive note to the evening and reflects Wexler's playful
nature. The desserts that followed including their famous donuts with
malted milk and a lovely passion fruit and coconut dessert proved to
be excellent finishers to the meal.

Noca does not have a beautiful
location, nor does it have the fanciest décor. It is not the most
creative restaurant in the country nor the does it serve the most
opulent food. It is, however, a superb restaurant that suits a wide
variety of clientele in terms of food, style and price. Wexler and
Curtiss seem to have found the perfect blend for today's economy to
create a restaurant that is nice, but not too nice, comfortable
without downmarket, classy without being snobbish and gourmet, but
approachable for all but the pickiest eaters, all at a price that
provides real value. That real value extends to their wine list.
While not voluminous in depth, it has sufficient variety at very
reasonable prices such that oenophiles can be entertained while
people just looking for a good bottle with dinner don't need to break
the bank. At a little over a year since they opened, Wexler, Curtiss
and their team continue to do things right. I am looking forward to
visiting again next time I am in Phoenix.


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