The nouvelle noodle bar is a fad that's been building for years among the trend-humping foodies — a business model built on the restaurant industry's love of all things Asian, on the passionate lust for getting ten or twenty dollars for two bucks' worth of noodles, on the same cook's fantasies of simplicity and purity and speed that make sushi bars such a perennial favorite and gourmet hamburger stands a parallel craze. In Manhattan, David Chang has elevated the noodle bar to celebrity status (and turned himself into a minor rock star in the process) with his Momofuku brand. In Denver, we have one of the originals — Oshima Ramen, straight outta Japan — and Frank Bonanno's Bones. And in Boulder, there's Dave Query's Happy Noodle House, which is where I began to wonder whether this fad (like California cuisine before it, like small-plates restaurants or World Food) was finally beginning to rub up against its point of diminishing returns.
The noodle bar, by its very nature, is a casual, come-as-you-are joint. Like the neighborhood bar, pub, osteria or izakaya, it's affable and welcoming (most of the time), cheap (most of the time), convenient, full of friends and fellow travelers, easy to like. And every neighborhood needs one, because splashy openings and popular elevation aside, it's ridiculous to go too far out of your way for a bowl of noodles, a plate of dumplings and a cold Kirin, no matter how fun the noodle bar.
And Happy Noodle is fun by design. Fun by lots and lots of design. Fun by ever-changing, ever-reorganizing design that's either admirable (attempting to remain constantly fresh and new and accommodating for its guests) or craven (trying to be all things to all people all the time) — and I'm not yet sure which. When it opened in February, Happy Noodle had handmade ice cream for dessert; now it's brought in from outside. Happy Noodle was originally community-seating only — long tables and benches, forcing anti-social misanthropes like me to mingle with kids and families and regulars — but now it has a mix of community tables and individual four-tops, which I like better if only because I prefer to stand a half-step back from the milling foodistas as I watch them go all to pieces over the plates of house-made pickled everything and fried Brussels sprout leaves. If only because, while eavesdropping on the young girl lecturing her patiently boiling waiter about how using disposable chopsticks is killing all the trees and how she would prefer plastic chopsticks, please (how is that better?), or plain metal silverware if any is available at all, I was happy to be a full table away so that she couldn't hear me laughing at her.
Happy Noodle occupies an undeniably lovely space. It's mature and sparse and almost stark — and a surprising departure from Query's other, flashier Big Red F restaurants. The stonework on the outside, the bright-red Japanese arch and patio seating — they draw like a magnet. Even if you're not hungry (or thirsty), you want to stop in for a little something. Inside, there are flower arrangements at the host's stand; glowing, polished wood; a giant alien space octopus hung over the short bar to the left of the actual bar. That bar is lorded over by partner and "mixologist" James Lee, one of the first guys I've come across who truly deserves such a lofty title, who's done a boozy sociologist's work in unearthing classic, old-school cocktails and inventing new ones with the élan of a pure-science Doctor of Inebriation, mixing granddad-ancient Harvey Wallbangers and classical Sazeracs in (reasonably) strict accordance with recipes he dug out of god-only-knows which dusty bartending bible.
It all works and it all flows, and as a result, Happy Noodle has a kind of effortless feng shui that I find very charming.
And then the food arrives, and all the careful design and beauty begin to bend away from the mark.
The menu changes seasonally at Happy Noodle, though the kitchen appears to recognize more seasons than the traditional four. The specials, written in marker on a roll of butcher's paper hung on the wall, switch out every day or so. And new features are still being rolled out, even after several months of business: "Happy Time" — like happy hour, but more Asian-y, and a lunch menu added just last week, as well as kids' menus and to-go menus and that brilliant drinks menu. All of it seems very planned, very deliberate, very considered, so that even the reservation phone hung on one of the posts in the center of the floor doesn't ring, but kinda blorps with its own weird sound, much to the confusion of some of the waiters who I watched just stand there, staring at it, transfixed like cats.
Under the reaching tentacles of the space octopus, I sunk my face into a bowl of Happy Ramen with Berkshire cha siu pork and wonderful, perfectly cooked noodles twined into a nest, swimming in a dark-dark broth built up from a powerful brown stock, heavy on the spices, sweet and bitter and savory all at once, then studded with chopped pieces of braised and marinated mushrooms that tasted of pine sap and soy sauce, bits of roasted garlic, green onions and limp watercress leaves on the stem. On behalf of the cooks in the kitchen, I was exhausted just imagining all the prep. On behalf of my fellow diners, I was exhausted just trying to add up each flavor into a coherent whole.
The gyoza actually looked like gyoza — small and lacy-brown on the outside, shaped by hand. But they tasted like pâté, of an overanxious forcemeat worked too hard, and the sauce that came with them was a citrus-spiked soy as complex as a Bordeaux, with notes of rice wine and pineapple and lemon.
The fried rice featured more cha siu pork, dry-seared rock shrimp, peas and microgreens and wheat berries and green onions and, on top of it all, a milky-white "pineapple emulsion" that tasted of mayonnaise and tropical fruits. Even the house's pride and joy, the pickles, were complicated: chef's choice, individually dressed, delivered in several varieties, including cucumbers that had been turned into garnishes and limp, skinny stalks of asparagus that tasted like green beans.
It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the food; I did. It was just...so much. The kitchen was trying too hard. Even the "Simple Salad" here has no fewer than a dozen ingredients, and the lacquered Colorado lamb ribs aren't finished until they're topped off with pea shoots and pickled mustard seeds and stacked like Lincoln Logs.
Were the hands in the galley less veteran, the brains behind this menu less experienced, I would chalk it all up to Young Chef Syndrome — that urge of the newly minted white-jacket to cram as many unusual ingredients and complicated prep tricks into a dish as possible. But Query, chef James Van Dyk and sous Melissa Harrison (formerly of Top Chef and Centro,down the street) aren't kids. They aren't new to this game. So this overkill? It's purposeful. It's calculated. It's all very much by design.
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And that's disappointing. The knee-jerk problem I have with Happy Noodle — the admittedly small knee-jerk problem — is the same problem I've had with several of Query's Big Red F restaurants: The cuisine being presented is never really the cuisine being presented, but instead a subtle, tightrope fusion. It's a matter of intent, of barely disguised (and usually well-meaning) culinary manipulation — a consistent attempt to add just one ingredient more (and then one ingredient more) to every dish, to change one fundamental element of each presentation (pineapple emulsion rather than just, you know, pineapple, when the fried rice already had pineapple in it) in order to make an old dish new again even when the old dish in question was just fine to start with.
On another night (the one with the chopsticks lecture), I ate more ramen, this time with chicken — roasted, fried and served on a skewer. The chicken was delicious, a one-ingredient hit of pure pleasure; I wound up eating it completely independent of the soup that it came laid across. The clams-and-mussels appetizer was a three-way fusion of Italian, Japanese and Chinese influences — four, if you want to call the jalapeño Mexican — but it was still tasty. And the dry fry fun (served in its own little wok-like bowl, a very nice touch) was good and hot and sticky, with a Thai spice and a Chinese savor, Vietnamese use of cilantro, clumps of thin, oily noodles and a kick of fried leeks. Seeing as I had nothing to compare it to — no single, traditional dish on which it might've been based, no single canon from which it might've been lifted — I had to call it an original. It was probably the most successful of the fusions simply because it hung together so well, but it was still not my favorite Happy Noodle dish.
No, that honor would go to an eleventh-hour experiment — an invented meal ordered entirely off the sides menu just to see what the kitchen crew would do when forced out of their dependence on design, on flash and excess and overstatement. I asked for udon noodles in a plain chicken broth with a single onsen egg. What did I get? A bowl of chicken broth twined with the fat snakes of udon noodles, a stick of fried chicken left wonderfully alone, and a single coddled egg. Nothing at all more, nothing at all less. Each ingredient had been cooked perfectly, presented nakedly, fussed with sparingly. The broth was pure and warm and rich, the fried chicken delicious and crisp, the egg poached just so. It was the proof I wanted that, convoluted presentations and attempts at cleverness aside, this kitchen and its crew can cook well. Even brilliantly.
All they have to do is get out of their own way.