After a couple of years operating his cozy upscale noodle shop, Noodle Theory, in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland, chef-owner Louis Kao has crossed the bridge and opened a San Francisco branch in the densely restauranted Marina. His menus are short and sweet: a few starters, mostly dumplings; several salads; and then soup noodles (served in big round bowls) or sautéed noodles (served in deep square bowls). Several of the salads also feature, yes, noodles.
Many Marina dwellers are only a few years removed from stocking their cupboards reflexively with packets of ramen, or slurping Cup Noodles at their desks. They're salty, cheap, and filling. Noodle Theory's fare is a quantum leap from the dorm room's friend, or even the chowhound connoisseurship of pho, Japanese ramen and udon, or the Thai rice noodles found in ethnic eateries. Kao is proud of his ingredients, which include Niman Ranch pork and beef, Fulton Valley chicken, and fresh seasonal vegetables. His studied takes on pan-Asian noodle dishes "infused with elements of California cuisine," as his Web site says, give equal respect to flesh and noodles — but it's his daring and bold spicing that will keep us eating. Every broth and sauce was different. This is comfort food that also surprises and excites.
At lunch, we tried fried wontons ($7), the sort of '50s-era dish that might be featured in the Gallery of Regrettable Food, here redeemed by a stuffing of goat cheese and yau choy, a mildly bitter Chinese leafy green also known as rape, served with a soy dipping sauce. A raft of beautifully grilled asparagus ($6) came squiggled with a lively aioli made with hot Chinese mustard. It was such a happy combination that we had to ask for more aioli on the side. A miso-glazed salmon BLT ($11) on a bakery bun was so thick we could scarcely get our mouth around it. The fish was sweet, soft, and juicy, nicely juxtaposed against the crunchy, salty, smoky bacon.
But our favorite was the generous portion of ground Niman Ranch pork in a chile-heated black bean sauce with cooling strands of julienned cucumber and chopped scallions, served over thin noodles ($8.50 at lunch, $10.50 at dinner), a luscious dish. We couldn't stop eating it.
Dessert seemed unnecessary, but the list of half a dozen choices (all $6) proved unexpectedly tempting. Chocolate espresso croissant bread pudding with vanilla bean gelato was a trifle too rich for us, but the lush tapioca panna cotta, fragrant with almond essence and jeweled with diced mango and strawberries, had the same revivifying effect on us as the black-bean-pork-sauced noodles had — though in a cooling rather than heated fashion.
At dinner, the somewhat longer and slightly pricier menu was augmented by a printed list of specials, from which we chose slow-roasted lamb ribs ($10), the seldom-seen delicious and slightly gamey meat succulent under a mildly sweet pomegranate glaze, served with a salad of spring greens and thin strips of fennel. Half a dozen bouncy shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings, prettily crimped ($9), came with a simple sesame-soy vinaigrette dipping sauce. A bowl heaped with thick sweet potato fries ($7), interestingly dusted with five-spice and hot pepper, came with a Thai green curry aioli that was milder in flavor and less compelling than the Chinese mustard version.
More Thai green curry was used to sauce thin noodles that gained texture and flavor from roasted cauliflower florets, topped with two pieces of tender grilled Chilean sea bass ($18). Its orderer wasn't happy with it (I was), so he traded it for a salad of warm grilled salmon served over cold mixed greens and ramen in a miso vinaigrette ($10), which was the dullest thing we tried over both visits: limp noodles and greens, nice piece of fish, unimaginative spicing.
But the other two dishes we tried, both from the soup noodles section of the menu, were the stars. The savory pork-miso broth of the slow-roasted Niman Ranch pork belly ramen ($15) was savory indeed and slightly funky, full of irresistible fat chunks of meat and topped with crunchy, bright-yellow pickled daikon. Even better was the stunningly good grilled Niman Ranch beef ($14), thick slices of nicely charred hanger steak atop fat strands of udon, drenched in a spicy deep-yellow coconut lime curry broth with a lovely slippery texture, with plenty of Chinese greens.
Noodle Theory hasn't yet received its wine and beer license, so we cooled off with offerings from an imaginative list of soft drinks — we especially liked the cucumber and mint julep sodas ($4 each).
The Marina storefront's calm and modern decor is all earth tones: gray tiled floors and bare dark-wood tables, with more, lighter wood slatted along the walls. Art-glass pendant lights illuminate the room, and there's a small opening through which you can glimpse the kitchen. There are a few tables available for sidewalk dining.
We would have liked to taste more Asian inspiration in the desserts. The warm, round doughnuts — half a dozen served with a slightly underflavored salted caramel pastry cream — and the gooey warm banana upside-down cake with dark chocolate gelato were both pleasant if not markedly more than that. They could have come from anybody's kitchen, not the one that enthralled us with its fragrant broths. Besides the panna cotta, the only hint of fusion was in the lemongrass mentioned in a lemongrass strawberry rhubarb crisp ($6). We wanted to continue exploring the theory.