Some people tire of D.C. versus Baltimore comparisons. But it’s hard not to make a few after a visit to Noona’s, an Italian-inspired restaurant helmed by Cai Lindeman, formerly of the Michelin-starred Dabney in Washington.
Lindeman, who grew up in Washington, admits that his move to Baltimore “wasn’t necessarily a career-driven decision.” His longtime girlfriend got a job here, and after three years of 80-hour work weeks at The Dabney, “I was frankly really tired," he said. “I was looking for more balance.”
He has found it in Bolton Hill. At the newish eatery from restaurateur Phil Han (best known for Dooby’s in Mount Vernon), Lindeman offers fare that’s unpretentious yet imaginative, fresh yet affordable. That’s a rare and welcome combination likely to appeal to the students at nearby Maryland Institute College of Art.
The restaurant’s name, which means “older sister” in Korean, pays tribute to Han’s big sister and “original pizza buddy.” But tasty sourdough pizza is just one of the things to like. (That said, you really should try the $16 Napoli, loaded up with pepperoni, fennel sausage and pancetta.)
First impressions: Noona’s is located on the bottom floor of one of those glass-and-grey luxury apartment buildings, the kind of place that seems to go up overnight and could just as easily depart without anyone noticing. But you can’t judge a restaurant by its building. Walking in on a recent evening, I looked around at the smartly dressed diners and wondered at all the people who knew about this place before me. Everyone appeared to be deep in conversation. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial; fresh flowers on tables help compensate for an interior that can feel slightly sterile.
Must-tries: The commitment to freshness makes eating your vegetables a pleasure. We loved the roasted broccoli ($8) and Caesar salad ($9), which combined local lettuces with baby kale for a more dynamic flavor. Fall diners can try a seasonal squash dish ($10), which replaces an assortment of heirloom peppers that we enjoyed in late summer. Lindeman is averse to the term “farm-to-table,” but he points out that Noona’s relies more heavily on local growers like Monkton’s Karma Farm than many Baltimore restaurants.
What lingers in mind is the perfect, pillowy gnocchi ($14), served with ricotta and basil atop a deliciously plain house tomato sauce that keeps the focus on the pasta. That dish, we fought over.
Special touches: Edible flowers make everything look gorgeous, from the gnocchi to a yogurt panna cotta. (Alas, that last dessert is no longer on the menu, replaced with an espresso chocolate mousse. “We don’t really like to repeat ourselves,” Lindeman said.) The artistic plating is something you might expect at a Michelin-starred restaurant like The Dabney. At Noona’s, it’s a nice surprise, like finding a Marc Jacobs purse at TJ Maxx.
Pro tip: In addition to reasonable menu prices, Noona’s offers cost-conscious guests even more incentive to come back during the week, with specials like half-priced bottles of wine Wednesdays and buy-one-get-one-free pizzas on Tuesday nights. “We definitely want to make our food as accessible as possible,” Lindeman said. “I think this exact same restaurant could exist in D.C. and our prices could be twice as high."
Bottom line: Baltimore’s relatively laid-back food scene seems to have provided Lindeman the antidote to Washington’s intense culinary world, and he’s returning the favor at Noona’s by making tasty food that you can actually afford to eat. We’re happy to report that Lindeman’s time here has turned him into a Charm City booster. “Baltimore gets such a bad rap on so many levels,” he said. "Having lived here for three years I can really say, it’s not fair.”
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1203 W. Mount Royal Ave., Baltimore; Open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch Tuesday through Sunday. 410-424-0857. noonaspizza.com. Accepts reservations.