Of course, in my head, I’m thinking, “Except anything that requires me to eat with my hands.”
“So there’s nothing you are in the mood for?” My brother presses, as he idles his raven black BMW at a signal.
“Nope – you decide.” I say without hesitation, marginally confident that my brother, a restaurant aficionado, won’t pick burgers. Or worse – some place with “Cantina” in the title.
Richard says nothing, seemingly already set upon a specific spot for my first evening in Phoenix this trip.
I’m not worried about his silence until we pull into a strip mall with a Safeway and a coffee shop called Hava Java. My eyes shift anxiously across the rows of nondescript shops as I search for our destination.
“Where is he taking me?” I wonder. “Maybe he wants to go to the grocery store and cook dinner instead? I guess that would be okay… healthier at least…”
And then I see it, situated on the corner for all passing truckers and fanny-packed families to see – Keegan’s Grill and Taproom. Horror descends over my limbs as images of blooming onions and nacho platters and well-done sliders stomp through my head.
I steel myself for disappointment, but my brother keeps driving past the Taproom, and instead pulls into a space in front of a less overt storefront.
“Noca?” I ask, reading the yellow lettering on the window.
He nods. “Yep.”
I smile. This I can handle.
The restaurant is decidedly calm for 9 pm on a Friday night – only a handful of couples occupy the banquet tables and four-tops speckling the dimly lit space. I take my booth seat and steal a glance at a chocolate dessert two ladies are sharing to my left.
“I want that.” I think – a sentiment that I will feel about most of the dishes offered on the constantly evolving seasonal menu that night. Given the thoughtfulness of each plate, it’s difficult for both Richard and I to decide on our starters and mains.
Fall-spiced butternut squash soup or the waiter-recommended duck confit with medjool dates, pickled huckleberries, pecans, micro greens, and toast?
Pappardelle with braised pork or John Dory with celery root puree, crispy gnocchi and artichoke hearts?
The smart thing to do would be to order it all and share – go family style, since we are, well, family.
But Richard and I didn’t share food as cooties-conscious children, and we don’t (often) share food as adults. We both request the duck confit to start and the John Dory for our mains. It’s probably a foolish thing for us “restaurant aficionados” to do, but I secretly relish not having to part with a single bite of the impeccably prepared dishes.
“Communal plates are for the banshees next door,” I think with good humor. (I’m still smarting from my incorrect assumption.)
The acclaimed duck confit is particularly well-composed – the savory elements temper the sweetness of the dates and huckleberries so that each ingredient can sing. I’m also smitten with the crispy gnocchi that comes alongside my John Dory and horde each piece like it’s hidden treasure. I’m again thankful that I don’t have to make an obligatory “Do you want a bite?” offer to my brother, who is enjoying the gnocchi with similar intensity.
The meal is transported from very good to excellent, however, by the additional flourishes that are what truly differentiate a fine dining restaurant like Noca from, say, a grill and taproom. Celery root puree with prosciutto as an amuse bouche, a demi-cup of the butternut squash soup between courses, a thick web of complimentary grape cotton candy prior to dessert, and a sliver of pumpkin bread for the road, all make it clear to me that Noca is no strip mall slouch.
Of course, the dense teardrop of chocolate and banana pudding cake with banana gelato and white chocolate sauce helps too. Especially since my brother is loathe to take a bite of anything containing banana.
3118 East Camelback
Phoenix, AZ 85016