Thursday, March 29, 2012

Noodles & Company

Since noodles are my second favorite food (behind ice cream), I was thrilled when we were invited to the new Noodles & Company in Woodley Park to meet the company's head chef, Tessa Stamper, and enjoy a complimentary sampling of her favorite menu items.

Noodles & Company is a national chain (headquartered in Colorado) with 284 restaurants and (rapidly) counting. They have 20 restaurants either open or opening soon in the DC metro area.

It is a fast-casual concept anchored by the all mighty noodle. The menu is divided into American, Asian, and Mediterranean sections, featuring noodle dishes from each type of cuisine. I think this throws people for a loop when they first hear about Noodles because many people (me included) tend to be skeptical of places serving a mishmash of cuisine from across the globe. But, if you can work past your first reaction, I think you can find items in each of the menu sections that will tempt your tastebuds.

Because you (sadly) can't exist on noodles alone, Noodles & Company offers the "& Company" part of their menu featuring soups, salads and sandwiches. Noodles also lets you customize the dishes to suit your preferences. They can tone down the spice, take out the mushrooms, and will give you a new dish if you don't like what you ordered.

We liked the philosophy and the friendliness and were pretty impressed with the food. Here is a rundown of the dishes we sampled.

Apple Spinach Salad

Typical yet tasty combo of spinach, apples, bleu cheese, and nuts. It was nice to hear that they used to use strawberries instead of apples but made the switch because of the seasons. For a national chain, the dishes at Noodles are surprisingly local and seasonal.

Wisconsin Mac and Cheese

The company's #1 seller featuring an ooey, gooey mix of cheddar and jack cheese with enough cream to make it dangerously delicious. B, ever the salt fiend, thought it was a little on the bland side for his palate.

Truffle Mac and Cheese

Because even fast casual chain restaurants are getting into the trufflepalooza, Noodles offers this grown up version of mac and cheese. I was skeptical, but actually really liked this dish. The truffle oil wasn't too overpowering and the addition of meaty portabella mushrooms really made it stand out.

Thai Curry Soup

Our Asian adventure started with this yellow curry coconut broth packed with veggies. I liked the flavor of the broth but thought it needed more of a kick. If you like things really spicy, the restaurant has bottles of sriracha on hand.

Japanese Pan Noodles

Probably my favorite dish of the night. Fat udon noodles carmelized in a sweet soy sauce. The carmelization on the noodles gave them a fantastic texture. Also, the tofu (prepared in house) was nicely cooked without being fried into a squishy mess like so many places do. If you don't do tofu, you choose from a variety of other proteins to add to the mix.

Indonesian Peanut Saute

One of B's favorites, this dish feature a spicy peanut sauce tossed over rice noodles imported from Thailand. A surprising level of heat and depth of flavor for a chain restaurant dish.

Pesto Cavatappi

Chef Stamper said the pesto cavatappi is a hit with kids who have just graduated from the buttered noodles phase (FYI, buttered noodles is also a menu item). Us big kids also liked the fun curly pasta and creamy pesto sauce.

Penne Rosa with Parmesan-Crusted Chicken

B couldn't get over how well-cooked the chicken was. The tender chicken in its crispy cheese blanket was a good contrast to the spicy tomato cream sauce.

If you haven't stuffed yourself silly on your noodle journey around the globe, you can satisfy your sweet tooth with their signature krispies or cookies.

Noodles & Company is a welcome addition to the strip of Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park that I often refer to as the "restaurant wasteland."

It's not molecular gastronomy or fine dining, but it also isn't pretending to be. It's the kind of place you take your little kids to because nobody will flinch when your kid dumps their entire bowl of mac and cheese on their head. It's a perfect place to rest weary feet after a day of shopping. It's not breaking new culinary ground but it is consistent, fast, fresh, and flavorful. Some days, that's all you need.

Second Thoughts from B

In the beginning, there was food. And the food was fresh. And then someone created the frozen meal and powerful preservatives, and today's fast food chain was born. Now the pendulum has swung back to grandma's garden fresh fare, accompanied by the condemnation of the places we all grew up loving as kids.

I understand the backlash, but I also miss the fried flavorfest found at every drive-through in the country. After all, we both love McDonald's enough to make it out Valentine's Day tradition. Unlike some people, I don't think that McDonalds & Company is the devil. But I don't want to be eating there multiple times a week either. As I get older (debatable if this means more mature or just slower metabolism), I just can't drop 8000 calories a day like I could in high school. That's why I'm excited that the health conscious fast casual restaurant concept is emerging.

Blending the convenience, affordability, appeal, and menu options of many fast food restaurants with an eye towards healthful living is a business model I can embrace. Admittedly, Noodles & Company doesn't make their noodles or sauce in house, but it was surprising how much consideration went in to buying from local producers, using seasonal ingredients, and cooking food to order. The fact that Chef Tessa was originally a dietitian and that the company is based in the very active state of Colorado comes through loud and clear.

So while I will always love the frozen and then fried McNuggets that may or may not be chicken, it is nice to have the same convenience in a more guiltless form. I'll never turn my nose up at my old friends Ronald, Grimace, and the Hamburglar, but it's good to have options like Noodles & Company.
Noodles & Company on Urbanspoon

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