Restaurant Reviews

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.

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Victoria Pesce Elliott

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