Eliot Wexler is insane. I can say that without fear of retribution because he has become a close friend of mine since he opened Noca in August 2008. To say that he is obsessive about food doesn't even begin to do it justice; Eliot is hell-bent on sourcing the highest-quality ingredients, food costs be damned. My allegation of insanity is a high compliment.
I still remember my first meal at Noca, where I sat, and what I ordered. It wasn't long before my wife and I regularly inhabited seats 109 and 110 at the chef's counter. We ate there often enough that I told Eliot I should have an ownership stake in the restaurant. (I don't.) I didn't know him before the restaurant opened, but we ate there enough that Eliot, and many of the staff, became friends.
In the meantime, the economy tanked.
Diners stopped spending and price point trumped quality. Original Noca chef Chris Curtiss moved on to other endeavors (where he's still putting out incredible food at Bourbon Steak), and Noca's menu went Italian under the direction of Claudio Urciuoli. Truthfully, it just didn't resonate with me. While the food was impeccably prepared, I just couldn't get excited about it. And, for the most part, I stopped eating there. I felt I lost my best friend.
Sure, Nocawich (the lunchtime spinoff) is making some killer sandwiches and has expanded to Sky Harbor and US Airways Center, where it's the only local restaurant in operation. The "Cisco Kid" is one of the top food sellers at the airport, but the true gems are on the rotating roster of sandwiches served at the restaurant. And, true to obsessive Eliot, they're actually roasting their own meat at the arena. But I miss the old Noca. I miss the menu and I miss my seat at the counter.
Well, it's back -- or so I hear.
Since Noca closed for dinner after Claudio's departure, I have been calling and texting Eliot on a regular basis begging for information. Not as a "journalist" but as someone who wants to eat that food again. I got nothing.
Complete silence. Nada.
The man is an incredible secret keeper, a veritable vault.
So moments after learning that Eliot has hired workhorse and former sous chef Adam Brown to helm the kitchen, I called him. Moments later, I had the menu in hand, though it's still a work in progress. From what I can tell, with the caveat of having not actually tasted any of it, happy times are here again. The menu is a clear return to contemporary American food that showcases impeccably sourced ingredients prepared without gimmicks. And it's less expensive than before, with most entrées in the mid-$20 range.
I'm particularly excited about the pork chop ($22) wrapped in Benton's prosciutto and served with an apple mustard jus. Same with sweetbread schnitzel ($15) served with Scamorza cheese, a Puglian specialty. Some of my favorites are still there, like the squid ink linguini ($23) with lobster, mussels, and bass. There are even two burgers on the menu. I hope they're as good as the Sinner's Slider that regularly appears at Nocawich.
Part of the price reduction lies with the fact that entrées now will be served a la carte. The one to watch will be Sergi's Bravas, a modern interpretation of the classic patatas bravas. It's the signature dish of Spanish chef Sergi Arola and made with garlic aioli and bone marrow.
If this article sounds like a commercial, it's because I'm excited. Noca brought to Phoenix a caliber of food that could only be found in cities with a much more vibrant culinary scene but it always faced a distinct challenge; it was the singular vision of its lunatic (again, a term of endearment) owner, who has a very unusual obsession with food. A clear disconnect exists between his vision and the still-evolving tastes of the Phoenix consumer; not everyone "got it" and was willing to pay the premium. The new menu seems to address that, without skimping on quality.
Obviously, the jury is still out. Noca will reopen for dinner service on February 12. For the sake of journalistic integrity, you can be sure that I won't be reviewing it. But you can be damn sure I'll be one of the first ones there.