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Soba, So Good

Some chefs have such distinctive styles that you can tell when they've got their hands on a certain restaurant--they leave their fingerprints all over the place.

Still, Oodles was the last place I expected to encounter a familiar face. This noodle joint is the umpteenth restaurant in a fairly enviable space on South Pearl Street, in an area well-known for supporting its eateries. For some reason, though, the assorted attempts at this particular address just haven't been able to capture the neighborhood's attention. The last occupant, Princess Garden, offered fine Chinese food for about ten months--and then last October the owners gave up and sold the space to Sung La, a longtime chef at local restaurants who was looking to strike out on his own.

Not completely on his own, however. And it's the restaurateur Sung La had worked for that explains much of Oodles' success.

At first glance, there didn't seem to be anything unusual about Oodles. The place is comfortable, with a decor that's an odd cross between Sushi Den chic and college-dive casual. But when I opened the menu, I was in for a surprise: The extensive, ambitious roster offered not only a comprehensive collection of noodle dishes from every cuisine, but also a fair number of unusual pairings--things such as raspberry-sweetened wasabi and balsamic-drenched lemongrass shrimp. And amid the intriguing Italian noodles linked with Asian sausages and exotic Indian curries mated with tomato sauce, there were a few equally unusual dishes I thought I'd seen somewhere before.

This could only be the work of Sue Smith, I thought. She's got her finger in this pie.

And I was right--at least partially. Smith owns New Orient--a Vietnamese spot in Aurora that boasts the best soft-shell crabs in the country--as well as Viaggio, an Italian trattoria a few doors away. Although Smith doesn't actually own any part of Oodles, Sung La worked at both of her places for years before she helped him find investors, a concept and a location. Her aid didn't end there: She lends a hand whenever Oodles needs it.

And that's pretty often, as it turns out. This restaurant shows the classic signs of being a place that got too busy too fast: Oodles is still ironing out some service problems, and Sung could use help in the kitchen. In the meantime, though, he does his best--and it's usually more than good enough.

Oodles has made a significant commitment to using the very freshest ingredients, and it shows. Everything we tried during two meals there nearly sparkled with healthy color and vibrant flavors. For example, there was the mee krob primavera salad ($6.50) we'd decided to split (and a good thing, too, because the portion was large enough to serve as an entree). Crispy noodles (the mee krob) had been combined with tip-top romaine, grilled eggplant, roasted red-pepper strips, tofu, green olives, pine nuts and cilantro, then coated with a Thai sweet-and-sour dressing that was unbelievably addictive. Even after our other lunch dishes began arriving, we kept the salad plate in the middle of the table so that we could continue to pick at those sweet-tart noodles.

The spinach-cheese wontons ($3.50), paired with the aforementioned raspberry wasabi, soon commanded our attention. These were great takes on the tired cream-cheese-filled Chinese version, with the fresh spinach cutting the richness of the cheese and the tangy sugars of the fruit balancing the bite of the horseradish preparation. And then there was the oddly named but wonderful "soba vegetables and buckwheat noodles" soup ($4.50). Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat noodles, which are made with a bit of wheat flour as well as buckwheat and are usually beige, thick and squared off. But the noodles in this soup were white, skinny and long. When I asked the waitress about them, she went into the kitchen and returned to tell me that they were a new kind of white buckwheat noodle. Which may very well be the case, but they looked (and tasted) like regular, boring rice vermicelli. Besides the noodles, the soup was packed with fresh spinach, Napa cabbage, tofu and shiitakes, all of which had lent their earthy flavors to the simple but polished broth.

Much more sophisticated was an order of penne with lemongrass chicken sausage ($7.50). A generous helping of pasta had been tossed with snow peas and slices of an excellent spicy sausage so redolent of lemongrass that its pungent nip spilled over into the tomato sauce, indisputably just made from ripe tomatoes and subtly seasoned with basil. This dish came with two pieces of buttery garlic bread, and the whole plateful disappeared quite quickly into the mouth of my companion, a guy who admits that he doesn't eat Italian food very often and, truth be told, isn't that fond of it. Or wasn't until he ate this.

By now I was rather enamored of Oodles myself, so our return trip was made a mere two days later.

Even though it was a Monday night, the place was packed, and potential diners were lined up for a table. Only two waitpersons and a hostess were working, which made for some serious intervals between courses. During those excruciating waits, we watched these three staffers literally run as they tried to keep up. Nevertheless, they remained cheerful and apologized frequently.

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