Monday, November 23, 2009

Searching for Umami

Has anyone else been hooked on this season’s "The Next Iron Chef"? While I never watch the Iron Chef program – neither the Japanese nor the American versions – for some reason I obsessed on the competition version. On one episode, the competitors were cooking in Japan and had to create foods that demonstrated the concept of umami (or deliciousness), which has been added to the other four tastes - sweet, salty, sour, and bitter - recognized by the mouth. The fermented soy and fish sauces are considered to possess umami.

A casual remark by the Infectious Diseases physician in a conversation during our last meeting preceding discharge from the hospital led us to the Asian Noodle Bar in downtown Albuquerque (never miss an opportunity for a suggestion on local restaurants). And if our two recent lunches didn’t illustrate umami, then umami doesn’t exist.

We passed two tables in an outdoor entryway to the restaurant. In warmer weather, I'm sure this would be a seating location worth considering.

As the name suggests the menu centers on noodle dishes – udon noodles, rice noodles, egg noodles, vermicelli noodles, and soba noodles. Many of the dishes can be ordered with vegetables, tofu, pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp. And the selections represent Viet Nam, Japan, and Thailand. Along with the noodles, the menu lists a few soups and salads, a number of rice dishes, and ten appetizers – each of which sounded wonderful.

We chose to “graze” and ordered from the appetizer list. First was an order of Japanese gyoza (Japanese dumplings) which were deep fried and filled with a ground pork mixture and served with ponzu sauce.

The second was the tempura shrimp, five good sized shrimp which were fried just to the point of being cooked but no further, coated with a thin and crisp batter, and served with tempura sauce.

Third were the yakitori chicken, onion, and bell pepper skewers (lower left in photo on the left) which were served with teriyaki sauce.

Each of the three sauces had soy sauce as an integral component, but each was formulated to enhance the accompanying dish. The ponzu sauce was stronger with a more defined Asian flavor which held its own with the savory gyoza. The tempura sauce was much lighter and delicate, enhancing rather than overwhelming the sweet shrimp. And the teriyaki sauce was the most intense – and most sweet – and was perfect with the tender pieces of chicken.

Dessert doesn’t seem to be a priority at the Asian Noodle Bar, but the menu did list ice cream. Our first choice, the plum wine mochi ice cream, was not available so we chose the green tea flavor. This was our first experience with mochi ice cream which is a Japanese specialty. A ping pong ball sized serving of ice cream is covered with a sixteenth-of-an-inch thick, slightly chewy coating that is made from sticky rice. Very interesting. And very good. We feared that the ice cream would have that grassy taste so common in green teas, but in this case it was quite subdued.

A return trip was in order, and so was another order of the crisp and savory gyoza (lower dish in the photo below). Our second appetizer were the fresh spring rolls – rice paper wrappers stuffed with fresh vegetables, vermicelli noodles, and a generous amount of cilantro and accompanied by a very light sweet chili sauce. I thought that the sauce needed more impact, so I enhanced it with some of the soy sauce and chili sauce on our table. Much better.

We ventured off the appetizer list and ordered one of the specials, the spicy noodle salad. This consisted of thin noodles tossed with bok choy, Chinese cabbage, tender barbecued pork slices, and perfectly cooked shrimp, and topped with chopped peanuts. The dressing was sesame and soy based with just a hint of sweet and a hint of spice. Everything in balance.

We pondered an order of the mochi ice cream, but decided that what we really wanted for dessert was another order of the gyoza. This was the perfect ending to a perfect lunch.

Asian Noodle Bar is decorated in the spare minimalist style so typical of so many newer Asian restaurants. Just to the left of the door is a small sushi bar and running the length of the room is a black counter with backed stools. And there is plenty of seating at tables – mostly for two.

This is becoming one of our favorite Albuquerque restaurants, and Chuck thinks it may be his favorite.

Food this good deserves a 5.0 Addie score.

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