Fast And Casual - And Satisfying

Restaurant Review

Noodles & Company Has Good Food At Good Prices

August 06, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

In my life as a reviewer, I never get to visit chain restaurants. In real life, I don't frequent them, but I don't go out of my way to avoid them, either. When the restaurant intended for this review was closed, though, we ended up eating at Noodles & Company, and I'm glad we did.

For one thing, it was a very satisfying evening for me and the multi-generational family I had made plans with. And, for another, it's very useful for me to know about "fast casual" places like Noodles & Company since they're increasingly the direct competition for the kind of locally owned restaurant I typically do review. It's the one segment of the restaurant industry that not only appears to be weathering the rough financial times but might actually be benefiting from them.

Like such other locally popular fast-casuals as Chipotle, Panera Bread and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the Colorado-based Noodles & Company offers a limited menu that still gives the customer plenty of options. The innovation at Noodles & Company, whose founding was inspired by the noodle shops of Manhattan, is to offer choices in three categories - Asian, Mediterranean, American. There are still far fewer options than you'd find, for instance, at a family-owned Chinese restaurant. But it makes you wonder what the fast-casual restaurants have learned about how customers make decisions. Maybe they have research that tells them exactly how many options diners are comfortable with. One more, and the diner gets overwhelmed; one fewer, and he feels deprived.

Maybe a limited larder helps to keep down food costs, too. A family dinner at Noodles & Company is a very reasonable family dining option. Not as inexpensive as fast food, but for a satisfying dinner out, in a clean and pleasant environment, it's very hard to beat. The Pikesville location even has attractive patio seating. The most tempting way to order is the $7.50 "create your own trio," which includes a small bowl of noodles, an addition of protein (chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu or meatballs), and a small soup or salad. No one who went this way walked away hungry, and some people had food left over to take home.

And the food is good. It won't knock your socks off, but it's not intended to. Occasionally, I found a sauce a bit too sweet, as with the Bangkok curry, or just a tad too bland, as with the pad Thai, but whenever I did, the person who had ordered protested that it was just how he liked it. The biggest hits here were Japanese pan noodles with broccoli, carrots and shiitake mushrooms, with sauteed beef added in, a toddler-friendly macaroni and cheese with a nice firm meatball; and, especially, the tomato-basil bisque, which surpassed any fast-casual expectation, tasting richer and better than any soup I've had in months.

There were six of us on this visit, plus one toddler. Everyone was more than satisfied. Noodles & Company placed third in a recent Parents magazine ranking of fast-casual chains, and it's easy to see why. The food is fresh and nutritious enough to pass most parental screening, and once it's ordered, it comes out quite quickly. And because food is served on real plates, it's the kind of place that parents can use as a training ground for more grown-up restaurant visits.

Yes, in a perfect world, we'd all be patronizing our reasonably priced, locally owned and family-friendly noodle shop and pasta joints. And when I find one, I'll try to tell you about it.

On the menu

* Chicken vegetable pot stickers - $4.95

* Penne Rosa with Parmesan-crusted chicken - $7.50

* Mushroom stroganoff with braised beef - $7.50

* Bangkok curry with shrimp - $7.50

* Chicken noodle soup - $4.50

* Tomato-basil bisque - $4.50

* Caesar salad - $4.50

Noodles & Company

Where: : 3755 Old Court Road, Pikesville

Contact: : 410-580-5886

Hours: : 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Credit cards: : Visa, Master Card, Discover, AMEX, Diners Club

Appetizers: : $2.25-$4.95

Entrees: : $4.50-$7.50

Food: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Service: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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