When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Noca Location: 3118 East Camelback Road Open: Reopened for dinner February 12 Eats: New American Price: $30 to $60 per person
There are plenty of restaurants in town doing New American cuisine, but few that have the reputation of Eliot Wexler's Biltmore restaurant Noca. Sure, since stopping dinner service after the departure of former executive chef Claudio Urciuoli last year, the restaurant's buzz quieted a lot, but the lull didn't stop the excitement when the announcement was made that the Noca would begin serving dinner again under a new -- and quite young -- chef, Adam Brown.
As of last week it's fair to say: Noca's back. There are a few changes to the dining room's style, but they're not really that noticeable unless you logged plenty of hours there before (at least that's I'm told by those who have dined there a lot).
The menu, which went pretty much entirely Italian under Urciuoli, is back to an eclectic mix of simple but exactingly prepared dishes influenced by Italian, French, and other cuisines.
The Crudo is an artfully arranged dish of hamachi with blood orange and a pistachio dust. It's a winning blend of flavors, but mostly what we appreciated was the quality of each of the ingredients.
If you're craving a heartier start, don't overlook the mushroom soup. Topped with crème fraiche and a medley of fresh mushrooms, the soup left us wishing our bowls were deeper. It's a simple enough dish, and it let the ingredients shine.
As for the pastas, they're handmade, and you can definitely taste it. We enjoyed the squid ink linguini, which comes covered in a variety of fresh seafood including, of course, pieces of beautifully tender squid. It may not be the most developed dish you've ever tasted but the perfectly cooked linguine is an achievement worth appreciation in its own right.
By far, the best thing we ate during our meal was the pork chop, a pillar of tender meat that cut like no other piece of pork we'd ever eaten. The accompanying fingerling potatoes, nicely crisp on the outside, were a suitable accompaniment, but mostly we just wanted to use them to savor every drop of the drippings that gathered in the bottom of the bowl.
Don't worry, that doesn't mean there's nothing for veggie-lovers here. In fact, the second-most memorable dish of the evening was the Panisse cake, a square of fried chickpea flour. Noca's panisse cake achieves a smooth interior that's so buttery it's almost like a custard, well-balanced by a delicately crisp exterior.
For dessert, there are still those cinnamon sugar-dusted doughnuts that many people loved so much -- and don't think for a second that you're leaving without a fluffy tower of cotton candy, a signature touch since the restaurant's initial opening.
As you would expect, the service is top-notch, with attentive servers -- perhaps even Wexler himself -- asking often (but not too often) if you've enjoyed your meal so far. While you're there, keep an eye on the kitchen to see the 22-year-old executive chef who's heading up the kitchen at one of the city's best-known restaurants. It's pretty impressive.