Asian Invasion

An entree of cold udon noodles was more successful. With the characteristic elasticity of the best whole-wheat noodles, this light and refreshing salad was composed of ever-so-gently grilled Japanese baby eggplant, a spunky white miso dressing, and shredded greens, including scallions, cucumber, and snow peas.

In the interest of time we skipped dessert and coffee, vowing to become regulars when the restaurant worked out the kinks -- that was until the bill came and we discovered that even with only one glass of Chardonnay and an iced tea, our bill reached nearly $50 with a tip! It's not that the food wasn't good, it's just that when you splurge on lunch it would be nice to have comfortable seats, tablecloths, a more substantial meal with some ingredients you don't usually keep on hand in the pantry, and maybe even cloth napkins instead of the stiff paper ones that we found as rough as the toilet paper in Bombay.

On a recent Tuesday night (after my at-home lunch of sesame peanut noodles), I returned to NOA with my husband and three Generation n friends who were eager to try this glossy newcomer. We started with an array of neon-color drinks: a Kyoto cosmo, a Manhattan, and something described as Malaysian Rain, which consisted of champagne, raspberry vodka, and grenadine. Though not frozen, all three tasted vaguely reminiscent of a 7-Eleven Slurpee. That isn't to say they were bad, just a bit sweet and syrupy to suit me as an aperitif. I switched to a mellow Sauvignon Blanc, which stood up to the various savory and spicy dishes we tried.

Once again the dumplings were my favorite dish. Also good was the small but lively cucumber salad, a great teaser dressed in a sheer coat of seasoned rice vinegar and crumbled fresh mint leaves. Not so the salmon skewers, which even with a sweet ponzu dipping sauce, were inedible. Skimpy planks of fish were shish-kebabed with limp spears of asparagus, dunked in heavy tempura batter, and then fried to a greasy chocolate-brown color.

Our main courses arrived promptly. My Hunan pork Bolognese was dense and overwhelming. With each bite of tender noodles I skirted a puddle of thick oil that had formed at the base of the bowl. A pity, because the sauce was otherwise delicious, suffused with earthy flavors of cumin, scallion, shredded snow peas, and bean sprouts.

Another noodle dish, my husband's Malay laksa lamak, was hearty and satisfying, but not spicy as the menu promised. Wide egg noodles and shredded chicken floated in a coconut broth that benefited from the fresh crunch of cucumber and bean sprouts.

Despite a crowded restaurant and loud techno-pop blaring from the speakers, our waitress showed remarkable enthusiasm and patience throughout our meal. So did we when she mistakenly delivered a meaty noodle dish instead of a cold salad plate to one of our friends. The salad, which looked as if it had been pre-made, finally appeared with sincere apologies after the rest of us were nearly done with our main courses. It wasn't worth the wait. Boring romaine was topped with strips of uninteresting chicken, some fried noodles, chunks of cucumber, a handful of cashews, and a thoroughly undistinguished dressing of cilantro and soy.

Though we would have appreciated an offer to deduct the price of the dish from our bill, or perhaps a free drink, we soon forgot our annoyance when the desserts arrived. Heaped in a parfait glass, the Java iced sundae was a hit. The bittersweet mocha ice cream smothered in a dark rum sauce vanished in a moment beneath the flurry of five spoons. The Bangkok banana split with hunks of peanut brittle and fresh banana and gobs of hot caramel and fudge was nearly as popular. By this time, however, my husband could no longer bear to sit on the impossibly uncomfortable chairs. He chose instead to stand for coffee and dessert.

I found him that way after I took a circuitous trip to the bathroom, which led me upstairs to a darker dining area that looked a lot more comfortable than where we were sitting. I wasn't sure why, but once I got upstairs an elderly woman motioned me down a back set of stairs that emerged into a black-and-white tiled room that I soon figured out was Lou's Real Philly Cheesesteaks, NOA's next-door neighbor and yet another addition to China Grill's growing empire of eateries. I returned through the front door to rejoin my party, who looked as confused as I was when they saw me re-enter the restaurant from the sidewalk.

Let's get this straight: I'm an outspoken critic of China Grill, not only because the food never seems to rise above pretentious mediocrity, but also because the nightclubesque restaurant always heaps a heavy dose of attitude on top of its nervy prices. I have high hopes that NOA will be different. Already it has distinguished itself with pleasant if not professional service, some superb food, and a good-looking crowd. I say space out the tables, dim the lights, skip the loud music, set the tables properly, toss a couple of throw pillows on the seats, and the place may become a first-rate hangout. I already have a date to go back for the sake martinis, which I hear are worth the trip.

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