Noodle shops are big again, and a couple of upcoming openings speak to a new trend/fad among serious chefs going slumming for fun. It seems to have been inspired by a fantastic article in the March 24 New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar on chef David Chang and the opening of Ko. "Chef on the Edge" was one of the best pieces of food writing — of real, serious, insider restaurant life — I read all year, inspirational in its story of obsession, dedication and foul language.
When I called to ask Frank Bonanno for an update on Bones — the noodle bar he's opening at 701 Grant Street, in the old Sparrow Market Cafe space — I asked if he'd read the New Yorker piece. "Of course I fucking have," he said, laughing. Because everyone fucking has. And though Bonanno spends a good amount of time in the Big Apple, he's deliberately avoided all three of Chang's restaurants: Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ko and Ssäm Bar. "I didn't want to rip him off," Bonanno explained. He didn't even want it happening subconsciously before his final menu was composed.
Bones has a liquor-license hearing set for December 19. "Depending on how fucked up the city is," Bonanno said, "we're hoping to do friends and family — which is pretty much the staff from Mizuna and Luca — on the 28th and 29th." If all goes well, he's looking at a soft opening for Bones on December 30, in time for New Year's Eve. All of his restaurants are closed on Christmas, he explained, but the plan is to "come back the day after and start humping." His servers are already in training at Mizuna, his bar is coming together. The menu is odd — noodles as a centerpiece, but with the addition of Chinese steamed buns with suckling pig, confit egg rolls, bone marrow appetizers and soft-serve ice cream — and Bonanno remains remarkably cool about the whole thing. "It's twenty-something seats," he told me. "It doesn't matter. Either you're gonna like it or you're not gonna like it."
And then there's Dave Query with Happy Noodle House, tentatively scheduled for an opening in mid-January at 835 Walnut Street in Boulder. While Query is juiced about Noodle's innovative and "molecular" cocktail list (he's been on a serious booze-as-art kick since he opened Centro Latin Kitchen), when I got him on the phone last week, we talked almost exclusively about the food, its influences and his top guy in the galley, James Van Dyk. Query says he first ran across Van Dyk in Berkeley in the '80s at the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, which was then bossed by a pre-Chez Panisse Jeremiah Tower. Van Dyk was just on the crew there (one of "like seventeen guys," according to Query), but memorable. He did his California time, went on to work at the Morgul Bismark in Boulder (an early adopter of the thin pizza and California cuisine craze), then bounced out for Japan, where he spent three years cooking for a large corporation, introducing the Japanese to the joys of barbecue, fajitas and shrimp etouffee. In '91, Van Dyk again crossed paths with Query when Query was leaving his gig as exec at Cliff Young's to go to Q's and Van Dyk was coming in to take his place.
And to hear Query tell it, the two of them never really fell out of touch after that. When Query opened his first Jax in Boulder, Van Dyk was there with a gift of a giant fish sculpture that still hangs on the wall. He also donated a photo of himself in a turban and native costume holding a rooster in his lap that became a running gag at both Jax and Query's West End Tavern, where the picture (known as "Man Holding His Cock") hung in the men's room. "It's been stolen three or four times," Query told me, laughing. Van Dyk eventually went on to open the Gateway Cafe in Lyons with his wife, Noriko — a place that was infamous for its huge and diverse menu and for the ridiculous amount of talent coming out of such a small galley. "It was, like, two guys in there cooking," Query said, adding that you'd think it was a dozen for the kind of food they were putting out. And, of course, right now I'm kicking myself for never having reviewed the place, because with Van Dyk's departure to (finally) join Query, the Gateway is now closed.
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Still, at least I'll know where to find Van Dyk — and what he'll be cooking. "Noodles," Query said. "Big, brothy, delicious bowls of noodles. Soba, ramen, udon. As authentic and real as possible."
Van Dyk will do dumplings, too. Pork buns. A dim sum Sunday breakfast. And oddly, like Bonanno, he'll also be doing fresh ice cream — a different variety every night. "It's the kind of food I eat two or three times a week," Query explained. "Good for you. Healthy. Good late. Good with a buzz on." Amen.
I asked Query about the New Yorker piece; he said he hadn't read it. But he'd done one better, having gone to Momofuku Noodle Bar with a bunch of other chefs the last time he was at the James Beard House, then checking out Ssäm Bar on his last turn through New York in August. And the noodles he's sourcing are some of the same stuff that David Chang uses, out of New York by way of California.
Frankly, I don't care if Query makes his noodles or buys them or conjures them out of thin air. I just can't wait for all of these new joints to open so I can start slurping. And this time around, I'm not going to miss seeing Van Dyk in action.