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Noodle Theory

Asian Comfort Food with a Hint of Luxury

It’s a hopeful sign for the culinary economy when a restaurant like Noodle Theory, which built a loyal following at its original location in the Rockridge area of Oakland, brings its opulent Asian comfort food to a new location in SF.

Predictably, noodles are the star of the show, and diners select from an alluring choice of soupy, saucy, or sautéed versions, which range from slippery ho fun to cooling zaru soba. Seasonal toppings such as roasted cauliflower and sea bass or roasted Niman Ranch pork belly provide a California twist.

Chef-owner Louis Kao has been in the restaurant business, remarkably, since the age of five; his family ran Chinese restaurants, a 24-hour diner, a Fosters Freeze, a taqueria, and a hot dog shop. He calls his latest venture, "An accumulation of all my past experiences and my desire to relive some of those experiences with a modern take."

Starters include steamed shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings with aged black vinegar ($8), and fried batons of salmon enclosed in nori and spring roll wrappers ($8). The crispiness of the outer layers, alongside the silkiness of the fish and the pleasant pop of tobiko make this a unique and popular appetizer. Noodles range from the assertive, like spicy pork loin ramen in a peanut lime cilantro soup ($12), to the delicate, such as grilled Portobello and braised greens over spinach mai fun with a dash of truffle oil ($13).

Diners who have trouble making up their mind can easily mix and match. Prefer ground pork instead of seared duck breast on those red-curry coated Shanghai noodles ($16)? The kitchen will obligingly make substitutions. However, in that same spirit of flexibility and invention (Kao is an avid cookbook collector who is always trying out new ingredients and techniques), they also may take the liberty of making unannounced, albeit tasty, swaps.

Although the ramen was not as springy as we would have hoped -- which in some ways is a key test of a noodle joint -- overall the kitchen is deft. For example, their thickly sliced five spice-dusted sweet potato fries ($7) were toothsome and crisp. Service is competent and hospitable. And until they receive their liquor license, diners can procure libations from Bin 38, the wine bar next door, with no corkage fee.

Noodle Theory’s theme of Asian comfort food with a hint of luxury carries through to the ambiance, making it a good place to meet friends or have an informal date. The long dining area’s subtle tones of slate and brushed steel are warmed with an expansive burgundy wall and rich wood. With the exception of only the tallest among us (whose feet can reach the foot rail), most diners will be more comfortable “sitting low” at the two- and four-top tables.

In the age of recessionary eating, diners are demanding value for money: premium ingredients, adept culinary execution, attentive service, and an intriguing menu -- all at reasonable prices. It’s a tall order, and Ramen Club, which formerly occupied this space for a mere two-months, wasn’t able to pull it off. Noodle Theory however, has hit an appealing note and what will likely be a lasting formula.

Cow Hollow

Reservations Essential? Recommended for larger parties.