Eliot Wexler is banking the success of Noca on his food knowledge and local connections
There's an urban myth that 90 percent of restaurants close within the first year. Turns out, it's more like 26 percent, but still, it's a daunting figure, especially in this economy.
But there's one new restaurant whose success I'm betting on, if only for the local food brain trust behind it.
I can't review this place. Not to say that Noca, foodie-about-town Eliot Wexler and chef Chris Curtiss' new restaurant, isn't newsworthy. It just hasn't opened yet.
As of press time, Wexler says Noca (which stands for "North of Camelback") will launch next Tuesday, July 8, although I won't be completely shocked if that gets pushed out. For the longest time, his mantra was, "December One. December One." I've heard a lot about this — I've followed Wexler (we met through Chow Bella, then became friends, another reason I won't review Noca) through this whole process. Negotiating a lease, working with contractors, passing inspections, and finessing too many details has led to him opening in the middle of the summer, in the midst of a lame economy. Sigh.
But Wexler seems unfazed and says he's doing it all with a little help from his friends. Turns out, I'm not the only pal he's made since arriving here 16 years ago from Chicago. Among his group of investors, Wexler, a stock trader, counts his college roommate, some childhood pals, and successful friends of friends (including a part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks). Because anyone who meets him soon finds out how food-obsessed he is, it's no surprise that people were lining up to support his new enterprise. Not to mention other similarly one-track-minded food folks in town.
Wexler, a stout, easygoing fellow with dark, curly hair, has managed to parlay all sorts of personal encounters into this eatery. In fact, the urge to start a restaurant struck him in the middle of dinner at Binkley's, a Cave Creek dining destination where a six-course tasting menu runs $89.
"It was probably about my second course — a seared piece of foie gras with, I wanna say, cranberry bread pudding," he says.
Inspired, Wexler asked chef Kevin Binkley for a lesson on how to sear foie gras. Binkley agreed, and when Wexler showed up at noon that Friday, Binkley threw him an apron.
"I didn't sear foie gras that day, but I stayed 'til 1 a.m.," he says.
Wexler had no culinary credentials, no training. Still, Binkley welcomed him into the kitchen, where he continued to help out, unpaid, for about a year. "Kevin was ridiculously generous to me, and let me into that world," he adds.
During that time, the two planned to open a restaurant together. Ultimately, though, Binkley wanted to open another place in Cave Creek, while Wexler preferred Phoenix. They parted ways, but remain good friends.
Wexler's also friendly with Sea Saw chef Nobuo Fukuda, whose open kitchen, surrounded by a counter where customers can sit and watch the staff create each intricate dish, is the most eye-opening dining experience in town.
"Sit in front of him enough times — and I did — you can ask questions and learn from him," Wexler says of Fukuda. In the same way, Wexler got to know sous chef Geoff Reed, who works right alongside the Japanese chef.
Wexler looked long and hard for a talented chef, and he didn't limit his options to Arizona. When it came down to it, though, Chris Curtiss was right underneath his nose, working at downtown's now-defunct Circa 1900. Reed passed him Curtiss' résumé, and Wexler was eager to check out his cooking.
No wonder. A San Francisco native, Curtiss had worked as a sous chef at some of the Bay Area's top-rated restaurants before moving to Phoenix: Fifth Floor, Charles Nob Hill (with French Laundry alum Ron Siegel, who'd just become the first American to win Iron Chef in Japan), and Masa's.
Wexler later realized that he'd already met Curtiss a few years earlier, at Binkley's. Upon their second meeting, they clicked as if they'd known each other a long time. Besides sharing the same attitude about food, they have the same birthday.
Things started to fall into place after Wexler brought Curtiss on board. He'd already found a good location for Noca — in the former Eleve, at 32nd Street and Camelback, which he purchased from Michael Mishkin.
Curtiss recruited his Circa 1900 sous chef, Logan Stephenson, who'd previously worked at Fiamma. Frank Schneider, former general manager of Mary Elaine's, signed on to work at Noca after The Phoenician's famous fine-dining spot closed this spring. A bartender and a server from Mary Elaine's will join him. Robert Stempkowski, who'd also worked at Binkley's, and whose Tempe barbecue joint, Urban Campfire, is on hiatus, will be a server at Noca, too.
And most recently, chef German Sega — a sous chef at Sea Saw before his brief stint at Luc's — came highly recommended by Fukuda. Wexler says Sega will help in the kitchen in the mornings, and play with mixology as well.
Wexler and Curtiss have been sourcing ingredients for Noca as meticulously as they've cherry-picked the staff. Curtiss has seafood connections in San Francisco, and Fukuda is also sharing his Japanese fish suppliers. They're getting natural meats and prime beef from a family-run shop in Chicago, as well as organic produce from Bob McClendon (another Fukuda introduction) and Pat Duncan.
"We're going to use as much local, sustainable produce as possible," says Curtiss. "Whatever catches our attention, we can print on the menu that day."
He calls his cooking "modern American" — ingredient-driven, created with French techniques. The latest draft of the menu includes chilled white corn soup with baby carrots, chorizo croquettes, and smoked paprika oil; duck breast with summer squash, garlic confit, cranberry beans, crispy squash blossom, and duck jus; and day-boat halibut with Jerusalem artichoke purée, braised greens, royal trumpet mushrooms, and bearnaise.
Wexler goes on to explain that since America's a melting pot, there will also be homemade pastas, as well as crudo (raw seafood dishes, such as kampachi with oven-dried tomato, caper berry, pine nut, and mint). The dessert menu will feature chocolate and banana pudding cake, warm doughnut holes with dulce de leche jam, and several kinds of homemade gelato. And an evolving three-course "Simple Supper" tasting menu will be offered daily for $35 (Wexler and Curtiss' reaction to exorbitant menu prices at certain area restaurants).
Their general idea is to take old-school fine dining and tweak it for a new generation, presenting sophisticated food in a more relaxed environment. Curtiss hopes the place will be a "fun, comfortable, high-energy neighborhood restaurant like you'd find in my hometown, San Francisco, or New York."
No surprise, Noca will have an open kitchen, with seats along a counter.
"If you're a food geek, you like to see this stuff get put together — it's theater," says Wexler.
The timing of Noca's opening — in the dead of summer — seems to be the one thing that Wexler hasn't been able to control. (Well, that and the state of the economy, which nobody saw coming when he decided to open a restaurant.)
Restaurateur Peter Kasperski knows firsthand what that's like. His Scottsdale spot Digestif debuted to much acclaim this spring, but the opening dates of subsequent projects — including Mexican Standoff, as well as an expanded Sea Saw — have been pushed out.
"Opening in the summer has the serious advantage of getting most of the publicity to yourself, as well as most of the 'Have you been to that new . . .' buzz, because most places steadfastly avoid the summer," Kasperski says.
"The tougher part is getting check averages up," he continues. "If your restaurant doesn't have smaller plate or grazing options, it can be tough to convince folks to eat there when it's 100-plus outside. We also find people eating later in the summer, so we took that into account when we decided to keep Digestif open until midnight every night."
Steve Chucri, president and CEO of the Arizona Restaurant & Hospitality Association, agrees that summer's a tricky time to open a restaurant, and that skyrocketing gas prices have cramped people's disposable income. Indeed, there's been plenty in the news about how people are cutting back — not just shunning restaurants but actually growing their own gardens to save money.
Tough economy or not, the prospects of opening a restaurant are daunting.
Still, Chucri says, Arizona is the second-fastest-growing state for the restaurant industry, behind Nevada by a tenth of a percent. If you've got a solid business plan, there's money to be made.
"You've got to have a key location, and an understanding of how the market works and how food costs fluctuate," he says. "You should also talk to lots of other restaurateurs."
I don't have a crystal ball to tell you how Noca will fare once it opens its doors. As far as the food goes, that's something you'll have to judge for yourself.
But when it comes to doing his homework on the Phoenix dining scene, well, I'm pretty sure that Eliot Wexler has picked all the right brains.
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