For a while NOCA had fallen off of our radar and was essentially “No-Go” (No Va in Spanish) because of the pricing and the idea of relative value. Let’s just face it, with the economy the way it is, NOCA just felt flat expensive for the dining and the experience.
As luck would have it, we were speaking with our friend Dak about getting together to decant our homemade Limoncello and then have a meal. FnB in Old Town was the spot of choice but it is notoriously hard to get a reservation at the relatively last minute, which in the case of FnB was a Wednesday. They are not open earlier in the week and I guess the starving hoards, not only know to book early but actually get around to doing it. We were skunked. Second choice, (though both are actually first rate) was NOCA, which neither of us had been to in a while. Dak made the reservation so I can’t say if we squeaked in, or made it by a mile but I can say we I’m glad we had the opportunity and it was populated, though not wall to wall, with customers when we arrived.
Before we headed out to Camelback Rd., we decanted and sampled our Limoncello work; which is immodest, but accurate, to label as “excellent.” Lest you think we were deluding ourselves, our wives, including Mrs. P Chef, agreed. And if you think they are just voting the family line with their praise, you don’t know our wives. Stay tuned, we will document the process, and I think, do some citrus variants with the next citrus season. So one success behind us, we tipplers were chauffeured by the wives to Eliot Wexler’s NOCA. Leopold’s Apple Whiskey was available and made a nice follow on.
We spent some time on the choices and shortly convinced one another to partake of the Tasting Menu (4 courses $50), which needs 100% participation by the table. With some judicious teamwork and some cross-sampling, we all got to try 10 of the 15 dishes on the whole menu. The first taste was a watermelon Amuse Bouche
One of the joys (or pains) of going out with us in “blogging mode” is the passing of the camera so that every dish has its portrait taken. And a dark restaurant is not the best photo studio. The Dak’s did a great job and have our thanks for their sharing in the fun (the pain) and letting us photograph their meals.
Starters were Heirloom Melon Salad with Benton’s Ham* prosciutto, Simple Salad with shaved fennel, Castelvetrano olives and an Orange Vinaigrette, Chilled Gulf Shrimp with green apples, yellow curry, red chili and panang aioli, and Peanut Crusted Berkshire Pork Belly.
Oh and a Big Eye Tuna Crudo with fresh wasabi, nori, soy and a tasty Yuzu gelee, bought for the table for an extra charge. The Big Eye Cruddo was refreshing and filling, as if the Italians had invented Sashimi.
By near unanimous vote, the Peanut Crusted Berkshire Pork Belly was the winner. The only hold out, was the “fish-a-chick-e-tarian.” I am just getting off of a post Summer Food Drive diet and have been eating lean. I could have had 2 more and been a happy camper.
Secondi was a pair of Risottos and Rigatonis. The ladies both chose the Carolina Rice Grit Risotto and were not impressed until they got into the soft poached egg and let the yolk add its richness. The Rigatoni looked like a good, solid, old school New-York style pasta dish. Eating it though belied a certain sophistication lacking in any excellent traditional dish. It was as if NOCA’s risotto was the sophisticated off spring, the next generation of the hard working Italian immigrant parents. It had the legitimate Italian roots but included house-made, thicker-walled, risotto noodles, pomodoro chili, and a rich parmigiano-reggiano, that lent it a certain domestic refinement, sophistication and Flair. Again, a post-diet wish would have been a larger portion or a second go at it.
Entrees were Atlantic Hake with with a pole bean cassoulet, belly clams, parsley jus and normally with pancetta, but the pancetta was out for our chicko-fisho-tarian. The rest of us all settled on the Lamb T-Bone (better known as chops) which were a little under cooked for the gentle ladies. Mrs P Chef solved her problem by proclaiming her husbands lamb dish (mine) “Community Property” and annexing it to her plate. As I could likely dine with Hannibal Lechter, I was happy to please my wife and bank some brownie points by going extra rare. Mrs Dak may have sent hers in for a bit more fire or born up and dug in. I already had my lamb under the knife and fork and I am not so clear on her specific lamb details. I do know that I am a fan of the Perigourdine sauce, and will have to get out the saucier guide in the near future.
A little too soon the gustatory delights came to an end, only to begin anew with a round of desserts sent over by Eliot Wexler, who had been on site, photographing the outgoing dishes, just before we put them under another lense at our table and flashed the room a second time, in the photography sense….well….I mean the clean-cut, food photography sense of the word flash.
We were happy diners with a selection of house-made grape cotton candy (they can make extra for the kids at home), Lemon Meringue & Tapioca Pie/Pudding, house-made doughnuts with caramel, pomegranate, and chocolate dipping sauces, a selection of house-made ice creams: Maple Something, Pistachio Something & Salted Butter, a Hazelnut-ish nocaBAR (terrific), and a Sticky Toffee Pudding.
The Sticky Toffee Pudding landed in front of me but had a lot of incoming air traffic control issues as the sharing forks of my fellow diners made many repeat trips to that tiny dessert landing pad.
We never got a chance to ask Eliot what his pictures were for. He did not ask us what ours were for. It feels like a lost opportunity but the good news is with the Tasting Menu softening the economic impact we will be back.
*Benton’s Ham that was used in the heirloom salad is a heck of a place and I am a year or two late in writing about it. I visited on Summer Food Drive I and they were really hospitable. They also do a nice mail order business.