A chain of noodles

Nov 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

With undulating hardwood waves hanging from the ceiling and walls the color of egg noodles, and with accents in tomato-paste red, you may feel like you’re at the bottom of a bowl of pasta while sitting in one of the four Detroit-area Noodles & Company restaurants.

Pity the scrappy little noodle house. The Royal Oak location opened in mid-2004, right in the midst of the low-carb craze and across the street from a hot new Belgian restaurant, Bastone. But Noodles & Company stayed the course, and seems to have found a home in Royal Oak and more than 150 other locations around the country. But I didn’t go inside until I heard that Noodles & Company’s fast food is made with fresh vegetables and organic tofu.

The menu is internationally inspired, and includes specialties from China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Russia (mushrooms stroganoff with egg noodles), the Mediterranean, the United States and, of course, Italy.

No complaints when, after placing your order, the fresh-faced young person at the counter says, “Your dinner will be ready in five minutes.” Just as you’re settling into a wooden chair at a wooden table in the spacious dining room, the food arrives. This is way better than a burger and fries with plastic and cardboard.

We began with an appetizer of pot stickers, a traditional Chinese dumpling that’s first boiled and then pan-fried. Here they’re stuffed with minced chicken and vegetables, and served with a soy-ginger dipping sauce. The truth is that you can get better pot stickers in a good Chinese restaurant, but these are a fair, fast substitute.

Japanese udon noodles are pan-fried, glazed with a faintly sweet soy and ginger combo, and served with crunchy fresh carrots, broccoli, bean sprouts and shiitakes. For an extra $1.50-$2.25 you can add sautéed organic tofu, grilled chicken breast, grilled beef or sautéed shrimp.

Whole-wheat fettuccine is prepared in a cream sauce that manages to be rich but not overwhelming, seasoned with roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar. All is tossed with sautéed onions, red pepper, mushrooms and broccoli, and topped with coarsely grated Parmesan cheese.

Thai is a recurrent sub-theme — curry stir-fry served with rice noodles; soup made with coconut milk and curry, served with fresh and crinkly napa cabbage, tomatoes, mushrooms and fresh spinach. And for those who go to Thai restaurants for the pad Thai, a variation is served here with rice noodles and sautéed vegetables, garnished with chopped peanuts, cilantro and lime juice.

If you’re trying to convince someone who’s stuck in the Atkins era to go to Noodles & Company, it might be helpful to know there are four noodle-free entrées, including a mixed grill of beef and chicken, sautéed shrimp in yellow curry served on napa cabbage, and grilled chicken breast — one with stir-fried snap peas, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots and red peppers, the other with tomato sauce, olives, mushrooms, onion and spinach with Parmesan cheese.

Comfort foods include chicken noodle soup, macaroni and cheese, buttered noodles with Parmesan, and penne with simple marinara sauce. These options make Noodles & Company a very kid-friendly place. I dined with a 5-year-old one night whose own review was, “This is the bestest restaurant.” (She ordered macaroni and cheese with sautéed shrimp.)

Remember to pace yourself at a carb outlet such as this. How you feel at the end of the meal is just as important as how you feel when you take your first bite. One evening we added to our noodle entrées an appetizer of pot stickers and Indonesian salad that included a hefty portion of rice noodles along with the lettuce, cucumbers, carrots and bean sprouts. At the end of the meal, we felt more overloaded than reinvigorated.

Which brings me to my main complaint about the place: too many noodles. I wanted more spinach and tomatoes and carrots and tofu, as well as more (and more interesting) noodle-free salads and appetizers. But then it is called Noodles & Company, and it certainly lives up to the name.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].