The Californication of Asian Noodles
6099 Claremont Ave., Oakland
Open daily (except Tuesday) for lunch and dinner
When I want noodles, I want them to be fresh and comforting. Noodles are the type of food that you want to eat at authentic, hole-in-the-walls. Several bloggers go on and on about noodlesfrom ramen to chow meinwaxing poetic about these slurping goodness.
Earlier this year, Noodle Theory opened on the edge of my Rockridge neighborhood in a former Double Rainbow ice cream parlor. Recently, I finally made it for lunch at the A-frame-like tiny noodle bar.
Joining me was my friend Vera, who lives nearby and has been to Noodle Theory several times. We got there before noon and didnt have any problems finding a table. The restaurant has all their tiny tables along the glass wall facing Clairemont Avenue. I got the view looking out the window while Vera got the view of the cooking station where all orders are made in flaming woks behind the counter by about three cooks.
Unlike fully dedicated noodle bars where you might get 10 varieties of ramen or just as many versions of won ton mein, Noodle Theory is a focused noodle bar with only a few selections on some of the typical favorite noodles: soba, ramen, udon, and crispy noodles. The noodles are all topped by properly sourced California meats, mostly Niman Ranch.
As I perused the menu, our server brought us a small dipping dish filled with edamame, the popular Japanese soy bean bar snack. It looked vibrantly green but doused with a dark sauce that was a combination of soy and balsamic vinegar. That signaled the theme of Noodle Theory: serve up classic Asian dishes and accompaniments but add a westernized twist to them because they can. It was fine, and the dark sauce wasnt as powerful as it looked.
For our lunch, we ordered the shrimp dumplings ($8.50) as a starter. Vera ordered the Spicy Pork Loin Ramen in Peanut Lime Cilantro Broth ($9.50) while I got the Chicken Ginger Noodles ($9).
The dumplings arrived soon after and they had a crumpled skin surrounding the exterior. The dumplings were plump and tasty, but nothing spectacular. It was fresh and filling but didnt taste anything better than what you could get at a Chinese restaurant.
When our lunch arrived, the server told Vera she should stir the bottom of her broth because the creamy peanut sauce typically settles in the soup bowl and itll blend nicely with her broth. Of course, I distracted Vera by taking a picture of her ramen and then grabbing a taste of her tender pork loin, so she forgot to stir her broth. Without stirring, her broth tasted thin and insignificant. But she said later that after she remembered to stir in the peanut, it tasted full and creamy.
My ginger noodle dish was a substantial order. The freshly grilled Fulton Valley chicken topped these very darkly tinted thick noodles. I found it odd that Noodle Theory feels the need to add so much color to their noodles by using what apparently is dark soy. But despite the dark look, it wasnt at all salty. It just looked that way.
The chicken meat was perfectly tender and very moist. It felt very healthy and fresh. And while the noodles were dark, they were balanced enough that I felt the overall dish was satisfying.
Were the dishes authentic? Definitely not. But I dont think thats what Noodle Theory is all about. Noodle Theory is classing up noodles in an attempt to expand its audience. Is this really necessary? In a sophisticated neighborhood like Berkeley-Oakland where Asian food is everywhere, I dont think so. Maybe in Walnut Creek or Pleasanton, where Zao Noodle (which seems like the model for Noodle Theory) is focusing its expansion in the suburbs while exiting its city locations.
For dinner, Noodle Theory has much of its lunch offerings with just a few more entrees. (But Im always a believer that noodles are best for lunch.) And while Noodle Theory is a competent approach to westernized noodles, Id rather head to Chinatown to get some of the real thing.
Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (fresh and fast)
Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner
Sunday, December 23, 2007
The Californication of Asian Noodles