Restaurant owner Phu Do and his business partners toured noodle restaurants in big cities across the country before opening Noodles Corner last July. They found inspiration in Chicago and brought the concept home to Columbia, where their stylish restaurant is located.
A few non-noodle stir-fries are prepared in their sleek open kitchen, along with some noodle-less appetizers and salads. But the heart of the menu is pasta in every Asian variation, from fat lo mein noodles and wide chow fun noodles to Singapore-style rice noodles and sizzling Japanese udon. Portions are surprisingly large, given the fact that everything on the menu costs less than $9, including seafood dishes. With prices that low, you might expect the atmosphere to be less than polished, but it's not.
The restaurant has a modern minimalist feel, outfitted with blond wood and walls the color of blanched celery.
On a recent Thursday evening, Noodles Corner had a respectable crowd, while a restaurant next door looked empty. The Windy City concept must be working in the Land of Pleasant Living, too.
It worked for us, with a few reservations. Nothing that we sampled was truly outstanding. Nothing made our hearts sing, except the knowledge that our bill was going to be so low, and the friendly service that made us feel like regulars.
Of the noodle dishes we tried, the Indonesian noodles were our favorite. Fat spaghetti-like noodles were tossed with seafood and bean sprouts in a dark sauce that had subtle heat and the perfect counterbalance of sweetness. We liked the shrimp and scallops but could have traded the fake crab for a few more vegetables.
"Feel good noodles" were simpler, darkened with soy sauce and given a smoky turn in the wok. For some, this dish may be too simple. Its main appeal is texture -- the way that thin strands of bean thread vermicelli play against moist shredded chicken and bean sprouts.
Of the main-dish soups on the menu, our waitress suggested the noodles in hot pot. We lifted the lid of our little cast-iron pot to glimpse thick flour noodles nestled against shrimp and vibrantly fresh vegetables. Bean sprouts, bok choy, carrots, mushrooms and broccoli all looked and tasted as if they had been blanched seconds earlier. The broth left us cold, however. It tasted like canned beef broth, and needed a shot of hot sauce to turn it into something worth eating.
Our appetizers were acceptable, but not particularly exciting. They included steamed dumplings stuffed with a bland chicken mixture, vegetarian spring rolls with cabbage and shiitake mushrooms, and fried calamari in a thick, almost scaly coating.
The best of our starters was the Vietnamese shrimp salad, which was both refreshing and light. It featured cold boiled shrimp on a bed of romaine with slivered cabbage, carrots, onion and basil, and was topped with a slightly sweet fish sauce dressing and chopped peanuts.
To go along with a meal at Noodles Corner, diners can order a pot of green or jasmine tea, a cocktail or a reasonably priced bottle of wine. Dessert is another story. There are no fortune cookies, no ice cream and, come to think of it, no noodle pudding.
8865 Stanford Blvd., No. 103, Columbia
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $1.95-$4.95; entrees, $5.75-$8.75
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 02/11/99