Restaurant review: Hearty sauces, casual Zen feel at Republic Noodle
Sophisticated pan-Asian cuisine at a new Federal Hill BYOB eatery
The stirred fried shrimp soba is served at the new Republic Noodle in Federal Hill. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / November 4, 2011)
Owners David Lynch and Christopher Boylan — who live nearby — opened the Asian restaurant in September, hoping to make it a new neighborhood favorite. With Lynch and chef de cuisine Henry Hong, formerly of Suzie's Soba, working the wok, and a menu gathering flavors and cooking methods from across the continent (the name "Republic Noodle" is a nod to the pan-Asian approach) they're off to a good start.
When we arrived early on a Thursday evening, the small space was nearly empty but filled up quickly. The kitchen also churned out a steady stream of carry-out and delivery orders (delivery is available during dinner only).
The space is spare, and straddles a careful line between sparsely decorated and cool Zen. The gray walls, ceiling and floor and black furniture might be boring, but a statue here and a rock there breaks up the drab color scheme.
Republic Noodle isn't loud or raucous, but the open kitchen provides enough background noise to keep the spot from feeling church-like. Don't worry, you can talk here.
The owners hope to secure a liquor license, but for now, Republic Noodle is BYOB, with no corkage fee. The owners plan to start offering mixers, to which patrons can add their own liquor. Until then, the restaurant offers a selection of cane sugar sodas and a fairly extensive and interesting tea and coffee menu. We enjoyed the sweet, intense house made mango iced tea ($3.50).
The menu offers a lot in the way of appetizers, from fusion experiments like Maryland blue crab egg rolls to more traditionally Asian items. We opted for the Prince Edward Island mussels, sautéed in a broth of yellow curry, coconut milk, tomato and lemongrass ($8.95).
A few minutes later, we were seduced by the chicken wings, which are offered in a variety of Southeast Asian styles, from mild Szechuan to waiver-required Assam, so we added a small serving of Northern Thai wings ($6.95) to our order.
At this point, it was obvious that Republic Noodle is still working out some timing kinks. The mussels took too long to arrive, and the wings were lost in the kitchen shuffle. Our waiter, who was friendly, attentive and knowledgeable, apologized for the delay and the omission — which he noticed before we mentioned it — but we were getting hungry.
Fortunately, when the mussels finally arrived, they were worth the wait. Immersed in a fragrant broth with subtle hints of coconut milk and curry, the dish was sophisticated and surprising. Once the mussels were gone, it was hard not to pick up a spoon to polish off the remaining liquid.
The kitchen's timing improved after the appetizers, with entrees arriving just a few minutes after we finished the mussels.
The night of our visit, the kitchen was out of pho — a definite disappointment — so our waiter steered us toward broth-cooked drunken noodles ($12.95) and the soba stir-fry ($9.95-$13.95). Both were great bets.
The soba stir-fry was a well-seasoned mix of wheat noodles, vegetables – most notably cabbage – adding a bit of crunch, and sweet and smoky shrimp. Our waiter explained that soba stir-fry is a healthy dinner, but you'd never know it.
The stir-fry was good, but the drunken noodles were the star. The exact ingredients will change with the seasons, we're told, but the combination of noodles, vegetables (which for us included thinly sliced, tender potatoes), chicken and tempura shrimp in a savory broth was outstanding.
After polishing off our noodles, we barely had room for dessert, but when our waiter recommended the autumn spice black plum crème brulee, we couldn't resist. Autumn spice was an apt description — the flavor was reminiscent of pumpkin pie, while the silky texture and crunchy sugar topping were a nod to the dessert's crème brulee roots. Topped with a thin slice of its namesake black plum, it was a lovely end to a great meal.
Republic Noodle touts its local, seasonal and organic products, but the complex broths and sauces are the real strength of its kitchen. Every table is accessorized with a bottle of Sriracha, the Thai hot sauce that's having its moment in the foodie sun. They're cute, but unnecessary. With Chef Hong in the kitchen, additional seasoning just isn't required. Additional visits, however, will be.