Though it was conceptually groundbreaking as it ushered in a fusion of tastes from Thailand, Korea, China, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam and India under one roof, the orginal Liberty Noodles was mostly a bore. From the start the food was plodding, sloppy, indistinct and unworthy of a second glance. It didn't get much better as time wore on, and though it had its moments of sheer brilliance, it mostly lulled with its tepid versions of the provocative.
The ambience was the single saving grace, cramped though it was in its Lower Greenville haunt. Parasols and birdcages incarcerating illuminated amber chandelier bulbs dangled from the ceiling. Counter seating was lined with magazine racks. But the crucial ambience appointment was Liberty's leafy, sweaty patio: an open area crowded with metal tables and chairs, pots of Japanese bamboo and herbs and a huge aluminum washtub posing as a koi pond.
But memories of this funky groove became pure funk when we pulled into the new Liberty Noodles in the two-decked Pavilion mall strip on Lovers Lane near Inwood Road. Tepid hip urban noodles don't fly well in convenience malls.
But how the funk lifts once you slip through the door. The amber darkness is alluring. The parasols and the flickering birdcages (we counted two) and the counter magazines are still there, but they no longer have the self-conscious "ain't we hip?" flamboyance. They come across more as a self-deprecating smirk, an acknowledgement of twisted excesses of youth.
In short, Liberty has grown up, and nowhere is this more evident than in the food. From the brazen curry attack of the khai soi soup, to the supple and delicate savoriness of the dumplings, this Annie Wong-inspired cuisine is, without exception, sublime. The flavor and textural mesh of the grilled and skewered calamari (my God, with tentacles even!) in a restrained but brisk sweet, hot and sour sauce speckled with sesame seeds was brilliant. Ginger mushrooms, a generous heap of black, straw and white varieties with a subtle ginger sauce, were a perfectly pitched blend of lax earthiness and nimble spiciness.
While it skimped on its most notable installment (baked goat cheese), the Asian pear salad, with slivers of pear on greens with sesame-ginger vinaigrette, was an icon of balanced restraint, though it had only one nugget of cheese in the whole heap.
The only setback in the vegetable soup was the stringiness of the wok-seared beef. Oh, and someone forgot to install the rice noodles, a noodle-house sacrilege quickly remedied by the chef, who personally delivered a fresh heap.
Spicy roasted duck contained the most lucid strips of pink and juicy duck meat--crowded with noodles, broccoli, mushrooms, bell pepper and pea pods--we've ever seen in Dallas.
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Even the noodle-less dishes had verve. Strips of sweet Chinese sausage were an alluring addition to the aromatic jasmine chicken strewn with basil. Spicy Laotian beef salad, an array of rosy and tender meat strips slumped among cucumber, tomato and clusters of cilantro leaf sloshed in spry spicy lime vinaigrette, was invigorating.
Even the requisite lone slabs of grilled fish, here in the form of salmon, are moist, delicate and expertly dressed in sweet, piquant Korean sauce.
Even more liberating than the menu flavors is the wine list, which shows deference to the cuisine. Rather than a chardonnay-merlot flood, the wine list is ripe with acidic reds and floral, spicy whites such as gewürztraminer, Riesling and even chenin blanc.
Founder Jeffrey Yarbrough opened Liberty with a sound vision that stumbled over the headiness of its promise. Fortunately for us, he had the armadillo hide, the resilience and the resources to tweak that vision to 20/20--a laudable achievement when you consider he's spent the past few years trying to sharpen his focus on a wavering noodle.