Cafe Society

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.

Smith says that they're trying to fix the service problems. "Some nights I've advised Sung to close off the private dining room and not seat anyone there if I thought we weren't going to be able to handle it," she says. "Better that we have people waiting than that we have people upset because they're getting poor service."

They hadn't closed the dining room on this busy evening. But we were willing to forgive and forget--this time--because the food was again so good.

In fact, our only objection was that two of our three appetizers were rather stingy in portion. The mango-lime shrimp ($5) featured only four crustaceans on the low end of medium-sized, coated with a whisper-thin tempura batter and fried. The shrimp went well with the rich, mango-creamy fruit sauce, and we hungered for more. The two Vietnamese egg rolls ($4.50) were so exemplary--nicely crisp, well-seasoned and served with a snappy nuoc cham--that we couldn't help but be disappointed by their small size and large tab, since the likes of these can be had at most Asian restaurants for half the price. For starters, they were the diminutive Chinese New Year spring rolls--and then the kitchen had made the mistake of cutting them in half. Rather than give the impression that less is more, the four inch-long chunks only looked more meager. (When I mentioned these disappointments to Smith, she agreed, then later called to tell me that the kitchen has increased both portions.) But we couldn't fault the soft-shell crab ($6), Smith's signature creation done the same way it is at New Orient: delectable batter; juicy, crunchy crab.

Our entrees were clearly Sung's compositions, though: medleys of fresh, crunchy vegetables playing against soft, flavor-soaked noodles. The menu had described the Singapore wok noodles ($8.50) as "spicy," and it was right; the Chinese sausage was the fiery kind best doled out in small bits to enhance rather than overtake. Fortunately, pork provided the bulk of the meal, along with shrimp, bell peppers, carrots, scallions, onions, button and straw mushrooms, scrambled eggs and, of course, noodles, this time definitely of the rice variety. More rice noodles threatened to spill out of the noodle bowl of stir-fried vegetables, tofu and lumpia ($7.50). There was just enough room left for baby corn, mushrooms, delicious deep-fried tofu, bok choy, onions, carrots and zucchini, as well as four logs of the chewy lumpia. (This Philippine variation on egg rolls uses a wheat-flour wrapper--which can be fried, as it was here, or wrapped again in lettuce and cooked soft like a dumpling.) The moistening agents that held all these ingredients together were a slightly sweet, almost teriyaki-like liquid that was further fortified by chopped peanuts and cilantro, and a side bowl of a nuoc cham that tasted as though it had been sprinkled with cayenne.

Appealingly spicy as our meal had been, we thought it could use a sweet finish. And while Asian restaurants rarely offer decent desserts, Oodles's Italian influence pulled through here. The cheesecake ($4) was one of the best I've had, although the kitchen should ditch the distracting, sour-creamy topping. The tiramisu ($4) was another trademark Smith creation: a rum-and-coffee-liqueur-spiked rectangle sporting plenty of mascarpone and soft cake.

"Even though I've contributed some things to the menu, I don't want people to mistakenly think this is my restaurant," Smith says. "Sung is the only one in the kitchen, and I'm in my own places. I may do a few things here and there to help him out and give guidance, but this is his restaurant. It's just been so fun to have a hand in it and watch it take off. And Sung and I have always worked well as a team."

It shows. With these two putting their noodles together, oodles of excellent meals should result.

Oodles, 1529 South Pearl Street, 765-2880. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday.