Around lunchtime on Friday, I started losing my focus. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the sauce. Not the boozy variety that has driven so many writers to ruin, but the rich Chinese “gravy” — served with a mound of rice and slices of fork-tender braised pork — I’d had for dinner the previous evening.
In fact, for three days running I’d eaten at least one of my meals at the new Asiana Noodle Shop on Church Street. Today I would be forced to go cold turkey, but no mere sandwich could quench my yen for just one more bowl of richly sour tom yum soup, or keep me from wishing I was scooping up lobster curry.
When I first tromped down the stairs to the Asian Noodle Shop, less than a week after it opened, I was favorably impressed by the minimalist décor: A coat of sage paint, some track lighting and mortared stone-work have transformed a casual burrito joint into a soothing restaurant. At the same time, I was taken aback by the length and breadth of the menu. The list of 65 dishes includes specialties from Malaysia, Korea and India, as well as Japan, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Given how few chefs manage to master a single national cuisine, I can’t help greeting with skepticism those who attempt a whole array of them.
But over my three visits — which allowed me to sample 14 dishes from six countries — the eclectic eatery won me over, and then some. When restaurants are closing their doors left and right, it’s a thrill to find a new place that’s reasonably priced and exciting enough to bring customers back time after time.
While seating diners and handing out menus, servers inquire about tea preferences. Jasmine, chrysanthemum and green varieties are on offer, but when I stepped off Church Street on that first blustery day, a pot of hot ginger tea hit the spot. Served incongruously in a French press, the sweet and spicy concoction was perfect for shaking off the chill. So perfect I ordered it on my subsequent visits.
I didn’t get similarly stuck on one appetizer, because so many were tempting. Cigar-shaped vegetable spring rolls ($4.95) were crisply fried on the outside and filled with a nicely seasoned blend of cabbage and carrot. The potato, pea and carrot samosas ($5.95) were flavored with Indian curry spices, but arrived with a dipping sauce more appropriate to a Thai or Vietnamese selection. Though a plate of steamed pork gyoza ($5.95) came instead of the shrimp shumai ($5.95) I’d requested, they were a fine replacement. The bits of ginger in the ground meat perfectly accented the soy-based dipping sauce.
As good as those were, the house-made “Thai Lemongrass Pork Sausage” ($6.95) was a revelation. Shaped like any old Italian sausage, but redolent of zesty lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf, the slices were unlike anything I’d tasted. A bit of the vinegared veggie garnish made them even better.
I felt almost embarrassed ordering “Thai Chicken Wings” ($5.95) with so many authentic Asian treasures still to try, but the crisp, savory result was well worth it. The addictive golden poultry was best dipped in a fish sauce and lime dressing, speckled with bits of green Thai chiles.
A similar sauce, sans the chiles, came on the som tum salad ($7.95), a blend of shredded green papaya, carrots and green beans topped with crunchy peanuts and grape tomato halves. The mixture was served on a fish-shaped plate — aptly, since it was swimming in liquid. The avocado tofu salad with sesame ginger dressing, by contrast, was drizzled with just the right amount. With a blend of mesclun, skinny strips of juicy seaweed, edamame and chunks of avocado, the plate was a stunning study in green. A few bits of wilted greens were all that marred its perfection.
On all three visits, appetizers and salads were delivered promptly, but at lunchtime on two different days, soups and entrées took longer to arrive. The wait was tempered by generous tea refills and extremely gracious service, unusual in Vermont eateries.
The house miso, which comes with entrées, will taste familiar to patrons of Asiana House. It’s made with traditional dashi (or vegetarian mushroom broth upon request) and augmented with miniature cubes of silken tofu, strands of seaweed and bits of scallion.
Of the numerous noodle dishes, I was first drawn to the “Cargo Noodles” because of its build-your-own design. My creation blended skinny rice pasta and seafood in a huge bowl of tom yum broth ($12.95). The hot ’n’ sour Thai soup is an aromatic mixture of herbs and spices, plus fresh mushrooms and tomatoes. Bean sprouts provided a bit of crunch, and a nice combo of seafood — salmon, mussels, scallops and shrimp — made the soup hearty enough to serve as a meal for two, when preceded by an appetizer or salad.
The “BBQ Duck Noodle Soup” was unusual and savory, with a rich broth poured over noodles and topped with slices of fragrant roasted duck and pieces of baby bok choy.
Beef panang, which I’ve tried in numerous Thai restaurants, was a revelation here. ANS’ curry was thick and rich, not swampy and thin, and it boasted the strongest coconut flavor I’ve encountered in such a dish. It was garnished with tiny strips of kaffir lime leaf and a vegetable medley — zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and snow peas — that was bright and attractive, but undercooked. (In other dishes I tried, the same veggie blend was done perfectly.)
Like the panang, the Vietnamese “Saigon Lemongrass” ($11.95) trumped other renditions I’ve tried. Those featured naked noodles topped with seasoned grilled chicken, with a paltry cup of vinegared fish sauce on the side. At ANS, the squiggle of vermicelli and bits of chicken came blended with a fragrant herbal sauce, and there was plenty of flavor to go around.
Aside from the pork sausage, I was most astonished by a dish called “Roasted Pork Gravy,” ($12.95), which sounds like American comfort food but turned out to taste like something one might discover deep in the heart of Chinatown. The pork — braised long enough to collapse in shreds when stuck with a fork — came in a rich, glossy five-spice-scented sauce with the consistency of a demi-glace.
On my last visit, as I waited for a gooey and delicious order of mango sticky rice — made with long-grain rice and plenty of tropical fruit — the servers teased me about my regular visits.
“Tomorrow you can try the Thai beef noodle soup,” one woman suggested, giggling.
“I’m probably your best customer, huh?” I joked back — inaccurately, as it turned out. The servers cited another dedicated eater who had shown up four days in a row.
It’s nice to know I’m not the only one in town suffering from a newfound obsession with Asiana Noodle Shop’s flavorful, masterful take on Eastern cuisine. I’m still eager to try the green mango salad and “Cargo Noodles” made with kim chee broth. Maybe we ANS addicts can start a support group . . . over lunch?