When Adi Kafri opened her restaurant the Rocking Horse in Tel Aviv a half-century ago, the neighborhood around it wasn't cool. But she saw the location's potential, and soon the area was a hotbed of small stores and cafés. As a matter of fact, it still is. But Kafri moved on to Miami, where seven years ago she endeavored to set up shop in another largely unknown hood: Edgewater.
Perched between 27th and 28th streets on NE Second Avenue, Noa Café is easily missed. It's essentially a small white box. The only indicators it's a restaurant are an unassuming sign and a handful of high tables out front. The barred windows aren't particularly inviting, but Kafri says they were essential back when an address in Edgewater didn't carry the same cachet it does now. This was before Bunnie Cakes, Panther Coffee, and the Wynwood Arts District popped up nearby.
"Now you see couples with strollers," Kafri says. "But before, you didn't even see people walking here. No way." Indeed, Noa, named for the initials of her three daughters (Niv, Omer, and Amit), began as a catering business, but Kafri quickly expanded it to include a weekday lunch program. About two months ago, the petite café began offering dinner service of its "progressive Mediterranean cuisine."
Many lunch favorites have made their way onto the evening menu, including pad thai, which Kafri learned how to make in Thailand when she was just starting out. The straightforward stir-fry combines perfectly cooked rice noodles with egg, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, peanuts, scallions, and chicken, shrimp, or tofu.
Too often the multitude of flavors in pad thai are buried beneath an overwhelming peanut sauce, but Noa's version strikes the right balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Like almost everything here, the portion is generous. And at $14, it's not a wallet cruncher.
Kafri is quick to point out that Noa is a local joint for people seeking an alternative to cooking at home. Takeout is available, and she recently partnered with the delivery service Caviar. Alcoholic beverages consist of wine and craft beers, and space is limited to 26 seats, plus eight at the bar. And though there are five tables outside, their proximity to the street means they're usually unoccupied.
As one would expect from a pared-down neighborhood spot, meals at Noa are a laid-back affair. A TV set by the open-air kitchen shows the nightly news, while the Kings of Leon croon in the background. The food is more comfort than haute, though daily specials such as smoked double-rubbed pork with blue cheese in a white-wine sauce speak to the restaurant's chef-driven side.
The same can be said for the warm grilled octopus flanked by mixed greens and spaghetti squash. Noa's version is tender and brilliantly spiced, with the al dente squash acting as the pretty bow on top.
Next is a fattoush salad, a Middle Eastern staple starring thin slivers of toasted pita bread. In keeping with Noa's progressive approach, Kafri's rendition includes crumbled goat cheese and plump pita points roasted in olive oil and za'atar. The pita points, though tasty, don't integrate particularly well with the rest of the salad's ingredients. They're too large and thick to grab with a fork. It would've been better to stick with the traditional thin pita crisps.
There also could have been more tomatoes in the mix of lettuce, cucumber, and mint, and the awkward addition of goat cheese might have best been nixed. Service is solid. Our friendly waitress brought over some extra lemony vinaigrette to pour atop the veggies without our even asking.
A far better choice for those craving Middle Eastern flavors is the mezze plate. Ideal for sharing, it comes with homemade hummus, stuffed grape leaves, falafel, grilled vegetables, and pita bread. The falafel is a tad on the cold side, but the vegan platter is lick-your-plate delicious. Just be sure to dip everything into the velvety hummus.
Though Kafri was born in Israel, she's always been fascinated by Asian cuisine and has traveled abroad frequently to study its intricacies. She proudly mentions having introduced Israelis to ramen at her restaurant on Shenkin Street in Tel Aviv and says Asian influences always permeate her food. A must-try is the baked salmon in a dynamic teriyaki sauce infused with orange peel, scallions, ginger, and lemongrass.
And let this be a warning to all of you chocolate fiends: Noa may very well serve one of the best flourless chocolate cakes in town. The dense treat is just sweet enough and every bit as decadent as your wildest dreams.
Kafri calls the restaurant her "baby," but she says she fully trusts her co-chef, Paul Suriel. The Dominican-born toque worked at Joe Allen in New York before relocating to assist with the restaurant's Miami Beach operation.
Noa isn't perfect and must undergo growing pains here and there. But this Edgewater eatery is showered with love by its owner and regulars who keep coming back for fresh, affordable, uncontrived meals. There's little doubt Noa will continue to flourish.