Sure, Noodle Bar has its forerunners. There’s Republic, a consistently good Union Square establishment that slings Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese rice and noodles; and Soho stalwart Kelley & Ping, where the fare runs from pad thai to Korean bi bim bop to curried Singaporean lo mein. Noodle Bar covers similar inexpensive starchy territory, but with a difference. Not content to merely re-create Pacific Rim standards, it tweaks them with unexpected and discordant ingredients. Occasionally, it succeeds brilliantly in its budget fusion attempts.
Imitating Kelley & Ping, the premises is decorated like a Chinatown grocery. Bottles of soy and Sriracha fill the shelves, and the walls are chaotically plastered with Chinese newspapers. Seating is limited to 18, much of it along a lunch counter that faces a black-tiled kitchen, with a couple of small tables overlooking the flung-open cellar doors on the sidewalk. Don’t tip your chair! Noodle Bar is a project of Quentin Danté, the restaurateur who gave us Yumcha, a meteor of a café on nearby Bedford that diddled briefly with Chinese cuisine, then flamed out in a blaze of publicity.
Among Noodle Bar’s successful innovations is a version of cold sesame noodles ($6) that begins with a typical peanut-sesame sauce. But chefs Maria Rodriguez and Ten Vong—a pair you’re unlikely to see on the premises—increase the voltage with a topping of crushed cashews, enhancing the nuttiness, and dark sweet shreds of pickled eggplant that send the taste galloping. Along similar lines, a ho hum bean curd salad is rescued with an assertive ginger-soy dressing and a handful of crushed red chiles. Listed as an appetizer, but really a full-blown entrée, fish and chips ($9) comes dusted with Chinese five-spice powder and sided with cassava chips. Not a bad idea.
According to the menu, the fried calamari incorporates Sichuan peppercorns in its crust. Unfortunately, the quantity of peppercorns is negligible, and the caper-dotted wasabi aioli tastes more like bottled Russian dressing. Still, the 10-tentacled cephalopod arrives expertly fried, and I’d rather eat it here than anywhere else for one reason—Noodle Bar is BYOB and thus you can bring your own beer. On several visits, I found anything made with duck to be iffy, including a duck salad that tasted like the refrigerator. Chicken-bearing dishes are a better bet, but skip the too-sweet sesame chicken wings. Among pork-based dishes, the pork-and-chive fried dumplings ($5) are commendable, and so is a crazy version of the Italian American classic spaghetti Bolognese that comes decorated with lotus root chips, substituting gooey udon noodles for the usual spaghetti. It’s a tad bizarre, but worth a try.
But Noodle Bar’s wildest invention is an Asian version of the Cuban sandwich ($9). The generous length of baguette appears prettily decorated with giant green caper berries, looking like alien invaders crawling over your sandwich. Inside, slices of pork and Spam are topped with melted Swiss and Korean kimchee, which provides an agreeable sourness and a small amount of heat. Some love this sandwich, while others hate it. Somewhat ironically, the best thing on four visits was the Cantonese fried rice ($7). I say ironic, because the dish is not reconstructed, but simply refined. The veggies are micro-minced so their flavors bond better with the rice, and anise-laced Chinese sausage provides extra oomph! And you won’t find anything quite like it in Chinatown.