If I lived downtown or anywhere near downtown, I'd eat at Noodlecat at least several times a week. It's quick, it's fun, and it offers up some of the most satisfying, oddly comforting food around: mostly, noodles dressed up into all sorts of yummy concoctions.
Jonathon Sawyer opened the Japanese-American mashup of a noodle house last summer on Euclid Avenue, just around the corner from his Greenhouse Tavern on East Fourth Street. The space screams urban in that very understated way the truly hip do. A quick step past the hostess station, windowed for quick carryout, and you're in a subtle gray room decorated in bright colors and cartoon paintings of what else: city cats with all kinds of attitude.
The room is furnished with pieces salvaged from a science lab at John Carroll University. Wooden tables of various heights and backless stools are scattered around. You might think the stools would be uncomfortable for a relaxing meal, but after settling in with a glass of wine and a succession of terrific courses, we never gave it another thought.
A second room at the back is anchored by a large L-shaped bar and a banquette stretching along an entire wall, providing seating for a family-style communal table. It's clearly a casual place that sets the tone for the casual cuisine. It is noodles, after all.
Sawyer says this venture was inspired by "the noodle worship" in Tokyo and noodle houses in New York. But here he uses local, seasonal ingredients (including noodles made by Ohio City Pasta) to create traditionally inspired dishes with some pretty wacky sounding combinations.
The noodles fall into three categories: old school, drawing on centuries-old Japanese traditions of minimal preparation; modern, in the style of Tokyo street vendors; and what Sawyer calls "mashup," mixing traditions with local, nontraditional ingredients.
I'm not sure into which one the Spicy Octopus Stir Fry Udon ($13) falls, but the flavors and textures combine for a most satisfying dish. Small bites of the tender sweet octopus create a terrific balance with the spicy chili paste coating the thick, round udon noodles. Baby carrots, bamboo shoots and fresh bean sprouts round out the dish.
The Takahachi Ramen ($12) with garlic pork broth, roasted pork, dashi, sesame seeds, dried seaweed (nori), crispy garlic and scallions is a pork explosion. Rich, complex broth and tender, flavorful Ohio pork can't get much more comforting.
Also worth trying is the soothing Kyoto Mushroom Udon ($11) with beech mushrooms and stock made with sun-dried seaweed; chewy kelp; and poached, silken tofu. The seaweed creates a broth imbued with deep woodsy flavors. And, in the Fried Chicken Ramen ($11), the crisp fried chicken sits on a mound of thin ramen noodles amid broth and greens. The honey-hot sauce combo adds a satisfying zing.
But before you start on entrees, sample liberally from the appetizers, steam buns and salads. Every one I tried was a winner. Twice Cooked Crispy Chicken Wings ($6 for five) come with a choice of sauces (soy ichima, porky garlic, miso barbecue and spicy), which are full of kick but had an inexplicable mellowness.
The Chilled Spinach & Sesame ($3) is among the staff favorites with its simple, refreshing preparation of soy and sesame dressing. Tempura vegetables come with a delightfully salty sauce and one of the best things we tasted: a tempura cake, which is also served with the Tempura Soba Dori entree. The tender, moist cake is packed with veggies and fried to a perfect crisp.
And don't miss the steam buns. They are served in a nontraditional sandwich style with tender white Japanese "bread" wrapped around sumptuous ingredients such as the fried chicken ($4) with creamy sauce and iceberg lettuce.
The Kim Chee Salad ($8) is a mound of crunch and spice with chopped Napa cabbage, kimchee (a very spicy combo of among other things chili and salt), peanuts. cashews and a pickled melon. It is refreshing but not for the faint of heart.
Noodlecat also has a nice varied wine and beer menu and offers an extensive sake and tea selection. The Berger Gruner Veltliner ($7, glass) that we tried is a dry white wine that goes spectacularly with the menu.
From drinks to decor, Sawyer shows range at Noodlecat with new flavors and style. But what's consistent with Greenhouse Tavern is the effort to follow sustainable business practices and deliver distinguished quality.
When You Go
234 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, 216-589-0007, noodlecat.com
Sun-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Ohio beef brisket and matzo ramen with chicken broth dashi, carrot and dill ($13)
Bring the Family:
Unlike many downtown places, it is kid-friendly and even has a Noodlekids menu with noodles, buns and more. Most items are $5.