Gourmet food doesn't need to be pretentious or stuffy—and on the flip side, establishments that serve lots of beer needn't deep-fry everything on the menu.
At Noble Hops Gastropub, the Mussman brothers—the pair behind Tucson's two Vero Amore restaurants—are walking a fine line, trying to balance the beer-flowing pub atmosphere with a menu that appeals to a more epicurean customer base. Aside from a few needed tweaks, they're doing it successfully.
At lunch, we sat on the mostly empty patio, as it wasn't too hot outside yet, and aside from a tippy table and our server forgetting to check on us a few times for water refills and dish removal, it was a pleasant experience.
It may take a while to choose a beverage from the beer list, since there are more than 100 choices, with 28 on tap, and they run the gamut from Steel Reserve ($5) to Rogue Brewery's Morimoto Imperial Pilsner ($35 for 1 pint, 10 ounces). There's something for every beer-drinker's taste, as well as a decent wine selection.
The Bavarian pretzels ($7) and lobster cigars ($9) that we ordered to start came out quickly, and were both tasty. The pretzels were big, buttery, soft mini-loaves served with both a cheese sauce and a ground-mustard mixture. They could have used a larger ramekin of the cheese sauce, and I would have preferred a bolder flavor in the ground mustard, but otherwise, the pretzels were a nice start to the meal. The lobster cigars were a very simple preparation of shredded lobster meat rolled up in a wonton skin and then deep fried, served with a tangy citrus aioli. The two "cigars" were fine for two, but it isn't the most easily sharable appetizer for a bigger group.
The Noble Hops menu is the same for both lunch and dinner, and it seems to tend more toward heavier, dinner-style entrées, especially considering the warm Tucson climate. A few salads and burgers were really the only appealing lunch options (other than ordering four or five appetizers), so I opted for the Wisconsin bacon jam cheeseburger ($10), and Ted ordered the portabella mushroom veggie burger ($10).
My cheeseburger was a little more toward rare than I would have liked, and the bacon jam was lumped in the center under the cheese, so it wasn't really detectable until I got it all in one big bite; otherwise, the burger was juicy, and the flavors were good. Ted's portabella "burger" was better: The mushroom cap was nicely cooked without being rubbery, and the burger was loaded with other goodies: roasted red peppers, walnuts, greens and Havarti cheese. The fries stole the spotlight from the burgers, though—they were big slices of crispy skin-on potato with an awesome herb-and-spice seasoning, and were absolutely delicious.
Our dinner visit was improved, though the service still needed some polish. After being seated, we waited quite some time for our server to come and take our order. Though she was quick with food and with drink refills, her manner was a bit abrupt.
For appetizers, we decided on the cheese-and-meat combination board ($18) from their charcuterie menu, and the steamed mussels ($13). Our server dropped off the cheese-and-meat board without any explanation as to what any of the chef's choices were, and ran off before we could ask. The portions were quite generous, but the board lacked the traditional charcuterie accompaniments, and was pricey, even for the portion size. There were three cheese selections and three meats; the meat selections were quite varied, but the three of the cheeses were all hard, mild and quite similar. The mussels were uniquely delicious, served in a tangy mustard-tinged broth, but there was no trace of the roasted pork belly mentioned on the menu, and the croutons had gone a bit stale.
The entrées, however, were impeccable. My braised oxtail with gnocchi ($18) was a big, rich portion of shredded, tender oxtail, dotted with a generous amount of fluffy gnocchi in an ever-so-slightly sweet, full-bodied sauce. Ted's New York strip steak ($22) was cooked to medium-rare perfection, and the pepper crust added a bold flavor without being overwhelming. The steak, presented in two pieces, was a plentiful portion in itself, but was accompanied by some excellent, feathery garlic mashed potatoes and crispy roasted root veggies.
After all of that, I somehow managed to find room for a few bites of dessert—and I'm glad I did. The pistachio gelato ($6) was the only non-liquid option offered up by our server (the other option was limoncello), and it was divine—a creamy, cool, lightly nutty treat, flecked with chopped pistachios.
Noble Hops isn't a typical neighborhood watering hole, and there is definite potential in the chic space for the kind of success that the Mussman brothers' other restaurants have seen, especially with a little more finesse in service and after a few kinks are worked out in the kitchen.