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Executive Chef Adam Brown

Point of Return

by Nikki Buchanan | Photography by Grace Stufkosky | Scottsdale magazine | April 22, 2014

If there’s one constant thing about Noca, it’s change. And if there’s another, it’s consistency, which sounds like a paradox unless you know Eliot Wexler, the food-obsessed, hands-on owner who has been the beating heart behind this upscale and utterly likeable neighborhood restaurant.

In the early days, chef Chris Curtiss made Noca famous for meticulously sourced, elegantly prepared seafood; light pastas; and the healthy, sophisticated cuisine attributed to California. But after his departure, Noca became a revolving door of notable chefs.

During his tenure, Matt Taylor (a John Besh protege) added a distinctly Southern flair to the Modern American menu. Then slow-food enthusiast Claudio Urciuoli very nearly turned the place into an Italian restaurant, schiacciata and all. After Urciuoli left last year, Wexler closed Noca for dinner, but continued lunch service under the name Nocawich, turning out sandwiches so good they could make him a multimillionaire—and may yet, given that Nocawich’s newly opened airport rendition is purportedly killing it.

Nevertheless, worrywarts feared the worst: Noca would be no more. Then recently —oh, happy day!—Wexler quietly reopened for dinner with Noca alum Adam Brown at the helm. Suddenly, for the first time in at least three years, Noca felt like Noca again.

Before the relaunch, Wexler tweaked the interior, removing the seldom-used dining bar at the front and adding several gold-horned rams’ heads to the back wall. The piped-in music selection is still among the best in town, and the extensive wine list suggests a much larger and pricier operation.

Brown, who worked under Curtiss those first few years before taking positions at Searsucker (first in Scottsdale and later, Austin), has built a menu that reflects Noca’s various incarnations, yet captures its original straightforward intent—a velvety soup, a gorgeous chop, a dessert so comforting somebody’s mother must be in the kitchen. Nowadays, the dinner menu also features a burger and Wexler’s famous housemade wagyu pastrami on rye, topped with Thousand Island, comtĂ© cheese and pickled red cabbage. Let your conscience decide whether you need a two-hour nap or a two-hour run after this one.

Focaccia with springy sea salt serves as a prelude to warm panzanella salad, a tangy, textural version, chunky with fatty bits of pork belly confit, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumber, pickled red onion, pecorino, fresh basil and crunchy breadcrumbs. Salty pork belly and Brussels sprouts show up again on a starter of diver scallops served with charred, buttery cauliflower and a drizzle of sherry bacon, the dish so rich and silky that one scallop is enough for two people. Kale-flecked panisse (a fried chickpea flour cake from Marseille), offered as a main course, makes a lovely starter too. Lightly crisped outside and creamy within, it’s served alongside roasted mushrooms, fennel, beets, baby turnips and tomato—the dish to make vegetarian converts of us all.

The pasta is as good as ever. Case in point—tender agnolotti, filled with mascarpone, Parmesan and lemon, their butter-slicked exteriors finished with balsamic and fennel pollen. Meanwhile, squid-ink spaghetti brims with sweet nubbins of fresh lobster, peekytoe crab, Bouchot mussels, calamari and sea bass, jazzed up with white wine, Calabrian chili and sweet hunks of tomato. Wexler is still fanatical about the seafood he sources, making this luscious dish a downright steal at $23.

Golden snapper, browned and crunchy, proves even a simple piece of fish can be wonderful, served with chickpeas, cauliflower and a sweet smear of carrot puree. But the knockout is surely the hefty Kurobuta pork chop, wrapped in Benton’s Country Ham, sided with roasted fingerlings and nestled in apple-mustard jus.

Desserts skew simple: triple chocolate flan with praline rice crisps; a seasonal tart; and puffy, salted chocolate chip cookies, warmed just to the point of melting, served with a mini malted vanilla shake, thick and creamy. The latter is a pre-adolescent flashback intensified by Noca’s complimentary bowl of signature cotton candy, a sticky cloud of pink confection few of us so-called adults can resist.

Noca has always been Noca, but thanks to Brown, it’s a little more Noca than it’s been in a while. And that’s a good thing.

3118 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix

Lunch: Tue.-Sat., 11-2:30pm
Dinner, Oct.-April: Sun., Tue., Wed., 5:30-9pm; Thu.-Sat., 5:30-10pm
Dinner: May-Sept.: Sun., Wed., 5:30-9pm;
Thu.-Sat., 5:30-10pm
Appetizers: $8-$23; Entrees: $11-$35;
Desserts: $8-$9; Nocawich Menu: $8-$12

Where to Sit
At the bar overlooking the exhibition kitchen, where you can talk to the chefs as they prepare your dinner

What to Wear
Something comfy and casual but not too sloppy; jeans are fine if you dress them up

What to Drink
The Noca Royale, made with St. George Botanivore gin, St. Germain, Aperol, lemon and prosecco