Noble American Cookery Review: Garden Variety

Is a fresh-and-local menu enough to put Noble on the map?

Restaurant dress codes aren’t what they used to be. Even an upscale, hip new place like Noble has servers decked out in gingham and denim, emblematic of the post-millennial “urban farmhouse” restaurant design aesthetic. Diners wear a bizarre mix of wardrobe staples: ribbed cotton tank tops, bejeweled shift dresses, button-downs, khakis, sneakers, flip-flops, patent leather pumps.

[sidebar]“Gone are the days of tuxedoed waiters and white tablecloths,” says Noble’s chef-owner, Steven Cameron, formerly of the acclaimed but now closed Long Beach Island restaurant Blue. “Casual fine dining isn’t a trend — it’s here to stay.” Classic fine dining has quietly been dying for years (RIP, Susanna Foo, Brasserie Perrier), and its creeping extinction has left a conspicuous void that young chefs like Cameron and his partners, Todd Rodgers and Bruno Pouget, are struggling to define. But as the eclectic outfits and expectations of diners show, the new high-end restaurant is far from codified.

Certain culinary commandments, though, are already set in stone: Thou shalt be local. Thou shalt be sustainable. Thou shalt name your dishes for the ingredients’ farms of origin. Thou shalt have a food-smart waitstaff. Noble has staked its identity on these principles, and there are no hypocritical blunders on the menu. All of the seafood, Cameron’s self-professed specialty, is certified sustainable. The beef is grass-fed, a rare but wonderful example of a restaurant actually practicing what it preaches. Chickens are local, organic, and pastured. The wine and beer list is 100 percent North American. Patriotic, sure, but more importantly, it has a smaller carbon footprint. There’s even an organic vegetable garden on the restaurant’s rooftop, its frilly tendrils of green framing the skylights. The message is crystal-clear: This is food you can feel good about.

But how does it taste? Fish may be the chef’s specialty, but the braised beef short ribs are a reason to make a reservation. Grass-fed beef has somewhat less marbling than its conventional cousin and a bolder, beefier flavor that some diners object to, but it’s perfect in this preparation: Cooked for up to 12 hours with whole lemons and a light veal stock, the beef is tender and flavorful, its richness balanced by the lemon’s twang. It’s served with a savory rice pudding infused with a bonanza of sweet onions. The rib eye is also juicy and full of real beef flavor, though the accompanying root vegetables were undercooked. (So were the vegetables in my vegetable-and-herbed-cream side.)

The menu is dominated by fish dishes, but execution varies dramatically from plate to plate. Pocono river trout served over a velvety cauliflower puree tasted clean and fresh and was cooked to medium-rare perfection. A shrimp tostada brought sweet Gulf shrimp tossed with a creamy avocado-lime dressing on a crunchy fresh tortilla. Grilled mackerel, on the other hand, was overcooked enough to bring out its unpleasantly fishy side. The accompanying fried tomatoes, which were supposed to be green but had ripened and softened in storage, created the impression of a fish stick when eaten with the mackerel in a single bite. The inconsistent cooking and hodgepodge of culinary influences make it hard to grasp Noble’s raison d’être.