The spring asparagus is off the menu at Noodles & Company, but as a consolation prize, I was invited to watch chefs Tessa Stamper and Tina Massey cook up some of the homegrown chain's new summer offerings, while marketing veep Dan Fogarty served up a side of stats. In the process, I ate a bellyful of Noodles' new summer dishes, tried a seriously good soup that I didn't even know was on the menu, and even got a taste of something that is about as close to fork-free, mushroom stroganoff to-go as it gets.
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Aaron Kennedy, founder of Noodles & Company, is a smart guy who made some smart decisions when he started the pasta-forward restaurant in Cherry Creek back in 1995. And though he's moved on, this privately-held, steadily-growing chain has successfully tapped into something that Americans won't give up easily, no matter the latest fad-diet trend: noodles. Noodles with international-fusion-flavored sauces and toppings, including seasonal fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. Noodles served in a fast-casual environment with fast-casual prices. So it's not surprising that Noodles & Co. continues to grow even, in a slow economy.
The company prides itself on menu items cooked to order in the stores with fresh ingredients -- no emptying cans, no zapping bowls of pasta in a microwave. And watching chefs Stamper and Massey work together to carefully prepare two new summer dishes -- Summertime Flatbread and the Garden Pesto Sauté -- was almost as much of a treat as eating them. Almost.
The Garden Pesto Sauté is a healthful combination of a pasta dish and a salad -- sort of a "pastalad" -- made with the best gluten-free pasta I've ever eaten, which is not small praise. I have tried making gluten-free pasta at home at least a half-dozen times, and every result is the same: bad. Either the stuff turns to inedible mush, or is so firm it just sits in a bowl, absorbing no sauce and too crunchy to eat.
When I asked the two chefs how long it took them to find the perfect pasta, they looked at each other with a weary amusement and agreed that it took a solid year. Their labor paid off big: The pasta is a fusilli imported from Italy, 70 percent rice and 30 percent corn-based. It definitely requires TLC, and they prepared the dish carefully. The result was a generous bowl of sweet corn, spinach, feta, red bell peppers, mushrooms, onions and chopped pecans, with everything tossed in a nice, lemony fresh pesto. I give this dish two forks up.
The new flatbread appetizer -- topped with pulled pork, feta cheese, fresh spinach leaves, grated Parmesan, fresh tomato slices and some particularly good charred corn -- rated just as high.
Pulled pork is relatively new at Noodles, and I was initially skeptical that customers would go for the other white meat over the usual chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu and meatballs. But the pork is definitely worthy. According to Stamper, the cushion cut of pork -- triceps muscle -- is brought in whole, seared and then slow-cooked with black pepper, salt, oregano and thyme (to make sure it's universally seasoned so it tastes the same no matter what you order it on) and hand-pulled every day to produce a flavorful, juicy but still lean pork. It paired well with the Japanese Pan Noodles, one of my favorites that Stamper prepped right in front of me so that I got to watch her caramelize the fat udon noodles in that sweet and savory soy sauce. The pork only made it better.
I watched both chefs prep what I thought was a new Thai curry soup, with thin rice noodles, spinach, mushrooms, tomato and a hint of cabbage and red onion in a bright yellow and lightly spicy coconut curry broth. It was a decent version of the soups you get in family-owned Thai restaurants. But when I asked when the soup was being introduced, they told me it had been on the Noodles menu for years. Why had I never noticed it before?
Fogarty said that most customers order the soup as a side. And since I'm usually focused on my favorite mushroom stroganoff with steak entree, I never get to sides. But this poor, delicious soup deserves to be more than an afterthought.
And just as I was mentioning that stroganoff, Stamper, Massey and Fogerty issued a trio of conspiring smiles, and asked if I want to try something new. Of course I did. So Stamper took a golden-baked flatbread out of the oven, sprinkled it with chopped parsley, cut it into slices and handed it over. When I took my first bite, I realized the soft white flatbread was covered with the mushroom-sherry cream sauce I love on the oft-ordered stroganoff, along with extra sliced baby bella mushrooms and melted Parmesan.
Then Stamper pulled another flatbread from the oven, and sprinkled it with a proprietary herb blend that had marjoram, basil, oregano and lavender. Those herbs took this strange, hand-held stroganoff-y, pizza-ish (maybe "pizzanoff") creation from great to even greater. Props to the Noodles chefs for using lavender buds with something savory. Now they just need to add this item to the menu.
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It isn't yet, but it soon could be. Noodles clearly knows how to use the old noodle and make it new again, employing such tricks as good gluten-free pasta, great pulled pork, and the occasional wild card like a lavender-scented, handy Stroganoff flatbread. I can't wait to canoodle with this crew again.