Asian Invasion

As usual, when I'm writing about food I get hungry. So while I was working on this review, before making my second visit to NOA, a new noodle shop on South Beach, I was overcome with a desire for something Asian, something light and spicy. This craving was exacerbated by the fact that I had just returned from a weeklong eating trip in the Caribbean, during which I consumed as much fried pork, fried plantains, fried potatoes, fried fish, and rice and beans as a body can without congealing.

Problem was, I didn't have time to go out for a quick fix. Luckily, as I was unpacking my briefcase, I came across a stack of food clippings that included a New York Times Magazine piece by Molly O'Neill in which she expounds on the virtues of peanut sauce: "This Thai mixture of peanuts, curry paste, sugar, coconut milk, soy sauce, and lime juice is a culinary ambassador. It can make a dish taste of trade winds and palm trees, of scorching midday sun and an afternoon deluge, of perfumed evenings delicately tinged with spice. ... It can stand alone the way it does at Vong restaurant in Manhattan, where it is served with rice crackers before the meal, or as part of a larger dish like cold noodles with shrimp and scallions."

Just the thing!
Of course O'Neill listed some recipes and, even better, given my looming deadline, the results from a taste test of fifteen commercial brands of peanut sauce. She found Thai Kitchen's Spicy Peanut Satay Sauce to be the closest to homemade. And guess what I unearthed from my kitchen cabinet? Yep, an unopened jar of the mahogany-color paste with the price tag still attached; evidently it's been sitting around for years. Did I buy it after my trip to Thailand? Who can remember? Improvising with what I had in the cupboard, the fridge, and the garden, I figured I'd make some cold noodles for myself.

I boiled a half-pound of Italian spaghetti, tossed it with a few tablespoons of the chunky peanut sauce, added some toasted sesame seeds, a dash of sesame oil, some vinegar, chopped cilantro and basil, a julienne cucumber, and two scallions. Lunch. Total prep time: twenty minutes. Total cost: about $1. Plus, I had leftovers.

Fortified, I continued writing about my first visit to NOA (an acronym for Noodles of Asia), which opened in early October on Lincoln Road. Just before my Caribbean trip I grabbed a quick lunch at this new hot spot, a less-glitzy spinoff of China Grill. A friend who was playing hooky from work accompanied me, and we sampled the Chinese broccoli and the steamed pork dumplings, imagining we were in a Chinatown dim-sum shop. Of course there was no way a shiny, silver dim-sum cart could have negotiated the tiny spaces between NOA's chrome tables and chairs. Our good-humored waitress had difficulty enough trying to squeeze between our handkerchief-size table and the huge communal bar jutting out of the floor like a command station on the Starship Enterprise. What we first thought was a prime seat with a view of Lincoln Road turned into a running joke. Surrounded by huge bluish-green semiopaque glass wall hangings decorated with drawings of fish and sweepy Chinese characters, we felt as though we were trapped behind the screensaver of one of the new iMacs.

To avoid impaling herself on the elevated table's steel corners, the waitress had to arch her back and wiggle by like the girls in Liquid's VIP room. All that was missing were the glow sticks, certainly not necessary here because the glaring overhead lights could have illuminated Pro Player Stadium. Which is where we felt like we were sitting after a few minutes, given the chrome and acrylic chairs that were as painfully cool as they were just plain painful.

Still, the appetizers were so divine that we soon quit complaining about the decor, best described as postindustrial torture chamber, and focused on the dumplings. With four to a serving, these delicate half-moons were wrapped in translucent sheaths of dough and stuffed with a subtly spiced mixture of pork, scallions, and chipotle chilies. The plate was complemented with ringlets of crisp shallots, sesame seeds, and a smoky vinegar-caramel sauce.

The Chinese broccoli tasted like its Italian cousin, broccoli di rabe, which I know well from my childhood and still savor whenever I eat it, which is often. The slightly bitter flowers were cooked until just limp, then doused with a light dressing of soy, garlic, and a hint of ginger. My only reservation is that the portion is too small.

When it comes to main courses, the kitchen is on shakier ground. Some of the more than twenty or so noodle-based dishes are excellent, while others are utter disasters. NOA's version of pad thai was tasty but about as Thai as my Aunt Angelina's lasagna. The rice noodles were as thin as vermicelli, served in a deep bowl of mild and watery coconut broth. The dish lacked the subtle balance of flavors that characterizes the real thing: sweet sugar, sour lime, spicy chilies, and salty fish sauce. Missing, too, were the traditional ground pork (or chicken), peanuts, and bean sprouts.

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.

In the meanwhile, for really great noodles I still have three-quarters of a jar of peanut sauce in my fridge.

NOA
801 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-925-0050. Open Sunday through Thursday from noon till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1:00 a.m.

Smoky pork dumplings $4
Stir-fried Chinese broccoli $4.50
Pad thai $11
Hunan pork Bolognese $10
Java iced sundae $

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