Thursday, May 28, 2009

NOCA (North of Camelback) Phoenix

My friends had been telling me for months how I just had to try NOCA. “It’s so good,” they said “You will love it.” I knew I would get there but I just needed to take it slow. You have to understand that I’ve been burned before by such recommendations. Sent to places by “foodies” only to be disappointed with the meal. So now when I’m told about a “must try” place I tread slowly, do some research and then decide whether or not to check the place out.

Last Thursday I finally decided I was ready to give NOCA a try and I’ll tell you right from the start I was not disappointed. Arriving slightly early for our 5:30 reservation, my friends and I were patiently waiting outside when the restaurant’s hostess graciously escorted us out of the heat and offered us a seat at the bar. Kudos to the staff for making us feel welcome even though they were still doing the final prep for the evening’s meal.

We were seated promptly at 5:30 and introduced to Carl, who would be our waiter for the evening. We couldn’t have asked for a better waiter. Carl explained to us how NOCA changes its menu daily and described our dinner options in great detail. That evening NOCA was offering an heirloom tomato appetizer. Being a tomato lover I just had to get it. Actually, after listening to Carl rave about the dish we all decided to start our meal with it. Not one of us was disappointed. The tomato slices were accompanied by a pesto foam and topped with a Champagne vinaigrette and just the right amount of sea salt to enhance their juicy flavor.

I decided on the duck breast for dinner; which Carl explained would be like no other dusk breast I’d ever had and he was so right. The dish was amazing; from the wild rice it was placed upon; to the pickled grapes that were served alongside; the entire dish went together perfectly. One of my dinner companions tried the roasted beet cannelloni and the other had the grilled scallops. Both were equally pleased with their choices and couldn’t stop bragging about how wonderful everything was so far.

As we perused the dessert menu Carl brought us a bowl of strawberry flavored cotton candy. This might seem odd at first but trust me it was not your run of the mill cotton candy found at the fair. It reminded me more of eating a bowl of fresh strawberries that just melted in your mouth. After all this I still was interested in dessert. I can’t help it I’m a dessertaholic. So I decided on the gelato trio and picked salted butter, pistachio and the old standby chocolate as my flavors. Each one was equally good in their own way.

I have to admit that my friends were right on with this recommendation. NOCA gets an A+ for food and service in my book.

3118 E Camelback Rd
Phoenix, AZ 85016
(602) 956-6622

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fresh Fruit & Dip...Perfect For An Outdoor Party

Memorial Day weekend, for most people, signifies the unofficial start of summer (unless of course you live in Phoenix where we’ve already had 14 days of temperatures in the 100’s) and involves some sort of outdoor food event.

Whether it’s a pool party with hot dogs and hamburgers; a day at the beach with a picnic lunch or a backyard BBQ with ribs and coleslaw; people everywhere will be spending some time outside this weekend eating.

So what do you bring to one of these events?

My go-to outdoor event dish is fresh fruit with dip. Simple I know, but it’s so delicious and somewhat good for you.

All you do is mix 1 block of cream cheese (8 ounces) with one jar of marshmallow fluff. Add 2 tablespoons of orange juice and stir until creamy. Cut your favorite fruit into bite size pieces and you’re done.

The fruit’s all cut; the dip's in the bowl…Now bring on the weekend!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day Dinner Recap

Yesterday was Mother’s Day and how did we celebrate? With dinner of course.

My mother's been craving polenta for weeks now. Not the instant kind or the prepackaged in a tube kind but the kind that needs to be stirred for 30 minutes. (you've got to love her) After 38 years of her giving me everything I want how could I not make her polenta for mother's day. Thank god for my husband who helped me with the stirring.

I found the perfect recipe on Food & Wine for Tuscan Pork Stew with Polenta. It's traditionally made with wild boar and we were lucky enough to get our hands on some. Although the ingredient list is long don't let that scare you. It's actually pretty easy to make and the end results are fabulous.

We ended our meal with a classic crème brulee topped with fresh strawberries.

Simple but delicious. My mom was very happy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ground Control...A Destination Spot in Goodyear

Way out west, in the city of Goodyear, we found a cool place called Ground Control. 1/3 coffee shop, 1/3 wine bar, and 1/3 gelato spot; Ground Control is an all around enjoyable place to dine. With such few places in the Phoenix area being destination spots; a place you can go early for dinner and find yourself still there later in the evening enjoying dessert and live music, Ground Control is a welcomed addition to the neighborhood.

My husband and I made a trip to Ground Control last Saturday night. The place was pretty empty for 7:30 on a Saturday night but that slowly changed as the band began to play. (Ground Countrol has live music on Fridays and Saturdays from 8-11) We were approached, almost immediately upon being seated, by our waiter who helped us sift through the rather large wine list and find the perfect wine for our evening. Several small pours later we decided on a bottle of Seven Deadly Zins. Along with the wine list Ground Control also has over 80 bottles of beer available.

Once we were ready to focus on our meal, the waiter made several suggestions that would complement our wine choice. We decided to do some sharing and got the 3 serving cheese plate: extra sharp gouda, havarti and kasseri. The cheeses were accompanied by some delicious chopped green olives , sweetened walnuts and dried mango slices.

And also the French dip sandwich; roast beef; provolone and au jus.

Finished with our meal choices it was time to sample the other 2/3 of what Ground Control has to offer; the coffee and the gelato. (we have no pictures of the gelato as I couldn’t wait to eat it long enough to take one) All of the coffee is roasted in house and available by the pound. It was nearly midnight when we finally made our way to the car. Ground Control had provided us with an evening of entertainment and good food and wine. We will definitely be back.

Friday, May 1, 2009

One Nights Dinner & The Obstacles We Encountered Along the Way

After a long work week my husband and I were looking forward to spending last Saturday (I know...this is a week late) preparing a romantic dinner for two and enjoying it under the stars in our backyard. For some spending an entire day tracking down that special ingredient and turning it into a feast seems like a chore but to us it’s a chance to reconnect with each other and create. Well it didn’t take us long to find out that Saturday was not going to be the tranquil day we had anticipated. And that even the simplest of ingredients can be hard to come by in Phoenix.

Perusing through some cookbooks we decided to focus our menu around small plates. This would allow us to try several new recipes, most of which were from Scott Conant’s New Italian Cooking cookbook. If you’re not familiar with this book it contains both very involved recipes and some that are quick and easy, giving you a nice mix.

Menu and shopping list created; we set out to gather the few items we needed. We had no issues finding the capers and anchovies needed to make a mayo dip for the fried zucchini.

We were on a roll; or so we thought. Next on our list were the rabbit legs we needed to top the baby greens salad.

Ok, so there is nowhere in the entire city of Phoenix that sells rabbit legs. I can understand that most stores would not carry rabbit legs on a regular basis but the fact that not one butcher was willing to order them for me was kind of disturbing. So we decided to improvise. A quick google search confirmed that chicken legs were a perfect substitute. Chicken legs it would have to be.

The mussels for our green bean and mussel soup were actually easy to find.

This was surprising since my last attempt at purchasing mussels had been a disaster. I’ve since learned that mussels are only delivered to the stores here on certain days of the week and any attempt of purchasing them on an off day is fruitless.

It was midafternoon and we were down to our last ingredient: smoked mozzarella for the gnocchi.

Seems to me like smoked mozzarella should be relatively easy to find. Well it’s not. We made the rounds of all the grocery stores in our area and finally found it at our last stop (of course). But seriously this is a new store that wasn’t there a year ago. So if we had attempted this recipe last year we would’ve been out of luck. Geez Phoenix it’s only smoked mozzarella.

3 hours, 30 miles and 6 stores later we were ready to start cooking. All I could think was boy this better be good.

But we were destined to encounter one more obstacle before the night was over. As it turns out while we were busy tracking down our food items the neighbors were busy preparing their backyard for a Hawaiian Luau. Determined to go forward with our romantic evening we sat down to dinner only to be serenaded by a group of drunk men singing.

Despite all of these obstacles the food was a success. My husband and I both agreed that the mussel soup was simply amazing and so easy to make; the poached chicken legs were a perfect substitute for the rabbit legs; the smoked mozzarella added just the right zip to the fresh tomato sauce covered gnocchi and the anchovy mayo was the perfect accompaniment to the fried zucchini.