Restaurant Reviews

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The noodle house was supposed to conquer the Dallas restaurant front, dotting it with shanties of twisting and slurping instead of fortresses of carving and chewing. Food pundits pointed to London and New York and Los Angeles, where noodle houses proliferate, and pronounced Dallas fit to breach this clique of sophistication.

Didn't happen. Sure, four years ago noodle maverick Jeffrey Yarbrough, founder of Club Clearview, opened Liberty, with its menu inspired by flavors from Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia and India. Then there wasn't much in the way of noodle houses in Dallas. Still isn't, outside of Vietnamese pho (a beef broth soup) houses with perplexing names like Pho Bang, Pho Pasteur and Pho 99 and Pho 95, as well three or so other restaurants labeled as noodle homes.

Liberty prospered, though, albeit slowly. An extension opened in Houston, and another is slated to spoon noodles on Lovers Lane in October. But the noodle house trend didn't grip Dallas, outside of a few Asian ethnic neighborhoods. Why? Maybe it's because noodle houses better thrive and multiply in dense urban enclaves where foot traffic can stream in, slurp and waddle out quickly (L.A. would be the example that busts the rule).

Or maybe it's because it hasn't been done right in Dallas. Perhaps more than any other cuisine, Pacific rim or pan-Asian or Asian fusion or whatever you want to call it is fashion-conscious once it reaches a certain price. Restaurants become galleries of strenuously hip stances where edgy baubles mean as much as the food. Liberty has its wok and birdcage amber chandeliers. Chow Thai Pacific Rim has a semitransparent wall of chain mail around the bar. Mango Thai is a blizzard of techy plastic in shades of aqua, mint and frosty orange. Steel Restaurant and Lounge even vends a CD of hip lounge music compiled exclusively for the restaurant by L.A. DJ Johnny Knight. Almost on cue these restaurants drip with Zen and drool feng shui.

It's hard to know how Tom Tom Noodle House, a "New York" version, fits into this mosaic. There isn't much plastic, but it could be described as Zen. It's tight and compact, and it's shoehorned into the West Village development, which perhaps more than any Dallas setting that doesn't have a Brookstone will create ample foot traffic.

"It's a modern New York noodle house with detailed simplicity," says Tom Tom operations manager Michael Bratcher.

That sounds like a bunch of press release hooey, but the more you delve into Tom Tom and its menu, the more "detailed simplicity" seems to fit. It's chic, but in a slightly rumpled way, not the kind of exhausting chic that drives you to La Choy chow and a few Abba CDs to break the "with it" monotony. Banquettes are assembled from bare plywood boards with upholstered padding screwed to the frames. The floor is bamboo. There's a double-barreled bamboo plant near the wait station that looks like a section of durable plumbing. Woods, in various hues of blond, are everywhere. A long bar buffering the dining room from the open kitchen is lined with votive candles. The activity can get furious, with flameouts and chefs pitching fistfuls of greens and knocking cookware around. They also deposit large pots in a utility sink and let the water run from the thin faucet for long periods of time. The effect is soothing: a fountain effect without the self-conscious feng shui baggage.

And maybe that's what makes Tom Tom so approachable. It's chic without getting you dizzy from a prayer wheel. The food is that way, too.

Recipes are structured for freshness and speed, and the food is reducible to three basic categories: noodles, rice and grills. Dessert is excluded, as it's hard to grill and is a drag on speed.

Pan-seared gyoza dumplings, posited under the heading "street food" along with snap-fried blackened pork and Balinese long bean salad, are four pan-fried purses stuffed with pork and chicken. Delicately crisped on the outside, the greaseless dumplings are scattered with bright rings of red pepper and scallions and accompanied by a small vessel of ponzu sauce in the center.

Spring rolls are also hard to peg under Tom Tom's category trio: They contain paper made of rice on the outside, and noodles threaded from rice as well. These long narrow rolls filled with succulent shrimp, searingly fresh pickled ginger, scallions and mint are a visual as well as a culinary flourish. The rolls are positioned at opposite ends of the plate with long chive strands protruding from the ends like dangling antennae. A rat's nest of thin carrot and daikon threads is deposited on the serving plate, as is a dish of stunning pickled carrot sauce.

Unfortunately, Bratcher says customers demanded the customary peanut sludge in which to plunge their spring rolls. Defy convention; request the carrot sauce. Its flavors work much better with the lush freshness of the rolls than does slightly stifling peanut sauce.

The Vietnamese grilled beef salad, just a simple heap of watercress, cabbage and bean sprouts, had buried near the bottom a gentle scattering of beef pieces. The juicy cubes had been dry-rubbed and percolated with a thick sweet soy marinade for days on end before being charbroiled and served. Overall, this is not a dish huffing with flavor. But it maintains an unexpected flip-flopped hierarchy, with the beef assuming the pinnacle on the palate, while the vegetation visually overwhelms it (these are ugly, mottled cubes).

Aromatic chicken with egg noodles offered surprising elements, too, but not necessarily the kind that arouse. There was aroma here, but it didn't come from the chicken. The perfume came from the broth itself, a murky black bath that looked like well-used engine-block solvent. The pool floated pieces of lemon grass, Kaffir lime, shaved fennel and a snag of egg noodles that were tough and rubbery. Thin in demeanor, the broth had a strangely bitter, almost industrial chemical way about it. This is odd because it was benignly crafted from pork neck, chicken bones, sweet soy sauce and herbs. Somehow, something got out of whack.

Pad Thai got out of whack, too, though on its face it looked like an innovation rather than a misstep. It was cleanly arranged with little pinches of bean sprouts, greens, carrot and daikon radish ringing a loose and separate wad of flat noodles interspersed with egg and juicy chicken. The noodle mass was relatively clear, void of any rust stains that might come from a sauce flush with tamarind or peanut. The flavors were very clean; too clean. All that could be pulled out of the noodles were a trace of fish sauce and a shock of lime. Tom Tom chef Tim Byres says his pad Thai recipe is anchored on a rich, rounded sauce composed of tomato paste, sugar, fish sauce and fresh-squeezed orange juice. But our pad Thai had no such racy lingerie. It was nude.

Nude works in most of this food, though. Grilled calamari steak, a neat sheaf of clean peppered meat strips stacked on a banana leaf, was creamy and delicious, with a sea salt, cracked pepper and lime solution for dipping. Indonesian beef and shiitake mushrooms on rice, with a yellow curry and sweet soy soak, were fitted with rosy beef slices, tender bok choy leaves and a tasty demeanor.

Overall, Tom Tom finesses a deft stroll on the cutting edge. It's clean. It's tasty. It's cheap. Maybe this is the noodle house force that will drive noodle fusion to steak-house glory, filling the landscape like a division of unstoppable bunnies. It's on its way. Tom Tom parent Triple R group is planning another Tom Tom to open sometime next year at Preston Road and Northwest Highway.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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