Does Noodles & Company have a cure for the chain-restaurant blues?

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Noodles & Company

Noodles & Company
10925 Olive Boulevard, Creve Coeur; 314-997-8804.

18 South County Center Way
(in Westfield South County); 314-416-4004.

1784 Clarkson Road, Chesterfield; 636-728-1580.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.-Wed.,
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Thu.-Sat.

"Wisconsin Mac & Cheese" (small) $3.75
"Trio" value meal $6.95
"Bangkok Curry" $5.75
"Mushroom Stroganoff" (with beef) $7.75
"Pasta Fresca" (with shrimp) $8

It takes a lot to startle me out of the stupor induced by a few beers and a playoff baseball game not involving my team, but during a recent telecast of a Tigers-Yankees wild-card tilt, I saw something so terrifying that I nearly resolved never to eat — or even think about — food again.

The horror (if one word could convey the utter despair in my soul) was a commercial for T.G.I. Friday's. I thought myself inoculated against the T.J. O'Pootertoot's of the world, but this ad proved me wrong. In it, a vaguely hippieish young woman protests lamely against Friday's new "Crispy Green Bean Fries" appetizer.

Let me repeat that. Crispy Green Bean Fries. They look something like jalapeño poppers made out of caterpillars. I'm gonna go out on a limb and predict they taste like starch and salt, maybe with a hint of canola oil.

Against my better judgment, I went online to see what other new appetizers Friday's might be offering and discovered "Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadillas" (with balsamic vinegar, natch), "Sizzling Triple Meat Fundido" (with that queso fundido standard, pepperoni) and "Fried Mac & Cheese" (of course).

Actually, the dishes themselves don't bother me. I don't have to eat them. What bugs me is that somebody at Friday's corporate office thinks we actually want these dishes. Maybe you'll try fried mac 'n' cheese, but you probably aren't clamoring for your indulgently creamy mac 'n' cheese to be portioned into chunks, breaded and dunked in bubbling oil.

That's one of the biggest problems with behemoth chains. It's not really about what you want to eat. It's about whatever deep-fried, Jack Daniel's-sauced junk the test kitchen has puked forth this month. It's their ego trip, and you pay for the ride.

The Friday's ad might not have gotten under my skin if I hadn't spent the week eating lunch at Noodles & Company. You can't get anything you want at this Denver-based chain. But you do get more control over your meal than at most other restaurants, let alone at most fast-casual joints. And for not much money — and in not much time — you get fresh, relatively healthy food that tastes like, well, fresh, relatively healthy food, as opposed to some test kitchen's latest breaded whim.

Noodles & Company was founded in 1995. The chain now operates in sixteen states, mostly in the Upper Midwest and the Great Plains, including three locations in St. Louis County. (A fourth location is scheduled to open in Des Peres this fall.) I suppose I should just be happy that another of the few quality fast-casual chains has arrived in town. Gayle Segura, Noodles & Company's national marketing manager, told me on the phone that St. Louis is "a market that's been underserved by a variety of foods." (Chipotle, I am looking in your direction.)

But while the demographic appeal of west and south county is undeniable — cubicle warriors and parents with young children were lined up out the door every time I visited — it's too bad Noodles & Company hasn't targeted the Loop, South Grand or (gasp!) downtown, where college students and twentysomethings would like to make their food buck go a little further without sacrificing edibility.

At any rate, Noodles & Company's success isn't hard to explain. The concept is as straightforward as the name. The company's Web site and promotional materials implore you to "explore the world of noodles." But when I asked Segura what sets Noodles & Company apart from other fast-casual chains, the first thing she mentioned was a customer's opportunity to customize his or her freshly prepared meal.

First you choose from a dozen noodle and pasta dishes, divided into three general categories: "Asian," "Mediterranean" and "American." You can add what the menu correctly (if somewhat gracelessly) labels a "protein": half a boneless, skinless chicken breast; shrimp; beef; or organic tofu. You can also add fresh vegetables to those that are already in your dish's recipe, or you can omit vegetables from the recipe.

You want "Mushroom Stroganoff" with chicken but no mushrooms? "Bangkok Curry" with beef and kalamata olives? "Wisconsin Mac & Cheese" with — gasp! — shrimp? Go for it! Sure, the cashier might blink, but your order won't be refused.

Of course, just because you can build your own meal doesn't mean it will be any good. But you won't go wrong pairing one of Noodles & Company's "Mediterranean" dishes with shrimp. I was wary about ordering shrimp at a fast-casual restaurant. It's not hard to sauté shrimp, but you have to yank 'em from the heat at just the right moment or they turn chewy, then leathery. I didn't think a place focused on volume (the line was out the door four out of the five times I visited) and speed could pull it off.

Wrong. The shrimp in my "Pasta Fresca" dish were plump, tender and absolutely delicious in a sauce of balsamic vinegar, white wine and roasted garlic; slices of red onion gave the dish a nice bite. In case this was a fluke, on a later visit I ordered shrimp with the "Penne Rosa." Again the shrimp were excellent, this time in a mildly spicy tomato cream sauce with mushrooms and tomato. (Both dishes were supposed to have spinach, but this was during the E. coli scare.)

Chicken was a logical complement for "Indonesian Peanut Sauté" from the "Asian" menu. The breast is grilled separately from the rest of the dish and served on the side, so I had to mix it with the rice noodles, vegetables and sauce to finish the dish. First, though, I tried the chicken by itself. It was (as it would be each time I tried it) slightly overcooked, the caramelized surface stringy. Still, the sauté was a satisfying, if simplistic, take on Indonesian cuisine. Which is to say it tasted like peanuts. A lot of peanuts. The dish also featured carrots, cabbage, broccoli, bean sprouts and cilantro, but while these did provide texture, only a squeeze of fresh lime juice made a dent in the sauce's cloying flavor. The menu describes said sauce as "fiery," but the heat's pretty low.

"Pad Thai," which I also had with chicken, wasn't much different, aside from a less-peanuty sauce and the addition of bits of scrambled egg. "Bangkok Curry," though, was a rich, sweet delight. The sauce could have used less coconut milk and more curry, but onion and red bell peppers helped cut the sweetness. It was here, however, that I made my first mistake. Bored with chicken, I went for beef. Sliced into bite-size pieces and grilled medium-well, the beef (top-round sirloin or a similar cut, I'd guess) was a little tough, and it clashed with the bright flavors of the coconut curry.

The beef went much better with "Mushroom Stroganoff," from the "American" menu. It's a lighter stroganoff than you might expect, the cream sauce spiked with sherry rather than sour cream. The dominant flavor is black pepper, and the beef helped smooth out the pepper's edge.

Noodles & Company offers soups, salads and a few side dishes. I thought the chicken-and-vegetable potstickers were bland, but I was impressed by the thick "Tomato Basil Bisque," which contained chunks of tomato and plenty of fresh basil. The salads were basically greens from a bag, heavily dressed. I didn't mind the Caesar when it was a small part of a "Trio" value meal — half a portion of noodles, a protein and a small salad for $6.95 — but I wouldn't order the salad by itself. The dressing was exceptionally garlicky.

That reliance on simple, strong flavors is Noodles & Company's bread and butter. More often than not, it works. That was the case with "Wisconsin Mac & Cheese." Nothing fancy here: just macaroni in a creamy cheese sauce, topped with shredded cheddar-jack cheese. Stir it together and you have a dense, decadent dish. It's remarkably good, considering how cheap it is ($3.75 for an ample "small" serving). I don't see how you could improve it. You could deep-fry it, I guess.

Fortunately that's one thing Noodles & Company won't do for you.

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