On the front door of Bobo Noodle House are the restaurant's logo, a pair of chopsticks laid across a bowl and its motto, "Yum now." This is a promise or a mission statement: Good food, served quickly. And, in its sleekness and economy, it is a signal that this is no mere new restaurant, let alone a plain old noodle shop, but rather the result of a well-conceived and -executed business plan.
No surprise there. Bobo Noodle House is the latest collaboration between restaurateur Zoë Robinson and chef Ny Vongsaly. Vongsaly is the executive chef at Robinson's I Fratellini; the two also operated the late Zoë Pan-Asian Café. This new venture is, in theory, a stroke of genius: an inexpensive, stylish, fast-casual eatery across the street from Washington University.
The interior is a single room, long and narrow, a lovely, minimalist space, with a curving black banquette and three unusual light fixtures. These defy easy description, but if you could make an origami chandelier, I imagine it would look like one of these. The light itself is a long metal cylinder suspended from the ceiling. Protruding from this cylinder are several dozen thin metal spokes, and attached to the spokes with binder clips are pieces of paper on which phrases are written in various languages. You notice the paper first, the fixture's architecture only after a moment or two. Stunning.
You place your order at the counter just inside the front door. As at fast-casual chain restaurants like Noodles & Company or Il Vicino, you're given a number to place on your table, and your meal is brought to you. I don't mind the fast-casual approach, in general, but at Bobo Noodle House it causes some awkwardness. If you're dining with others, and each of you intends to pay separately, you will need to coordinate your ordering so that everyone receives appetizers and then entrées at roughly the same time — a tedious extra step.
In a larger sense, though, Bobo Noodle House looks, feels and — once you've sampled its fare — even tastes like the sort of place where you want table service. If I were a penniless Wash. U. student, this would be a no-brainer first-date spot. (Do college students still go on dates?) Bobo Noodle House is inexpensive, but it's not cheap.
The menu draws upon chef Vongsaly's Laotian background, with flavors that flit among the touchstones of the Southeast Asian cuisines — fish sauce, lemongrass, red and green curry — sometimes combining them in unexpected ways. Beef pho, for example, bears no resemblance to anything I've eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant. It has thin rice noodles in broth, yes, but the broth is fiery with red curry and aggressively salted — to the very brink of too salty, and perhaps to some palates over the edge. Mellowing out the seasoning a little bit is another nontraditional pho ingredient: butternut squash. One more difference: The meat isn't thinly sliced and cooked medium-rare in the broth itself. Instead, you have bite-sized chunks of tender steak.
Appetizers are more traditional. Pork spring rolls are crisp and flavorful and come with a fantastic dipping sauce, a blend of chiles, fish sauce and other, more subtle flavors that you chase down to the bottom of the tiny dish without ever quite putting your finger on. The barbecue pork spare ribs, four to an order, are almost substantial enough to be a small meal. Though the meat wasn't quite as tender as I might have liked, the sauce — tangy, a touch smoky, with a lingering kick — was excellent.
Seared salt shrimp are served shell-on, and you're not meant to peel them. The texture takes getting used to and is not for everyone. I didn't mind the texture so much as the rather bland flavor. The mango yogurt sauce provided for dipping was on the bland side as well, with too much plain yogurt flavor and not enough mango.
Most entrées are grilled meats served over noodles. I loved the lemongrass beef, which is served over chilled sesame noodles but is, in terms of its seasoning, unapologetically hot. The meat itself has a peppery edge, and it's served over threads of tart, spicy cucumber very similar to what you might find amid the banchan at a Korean restaurant. The meat is sliced thin and seared perfectly.
Grilled curried chicken over egg noodles flirts with both Thailand and Indonesia; the roasted-peanut and chile sauce that coats the noodles is both sweet and hot. Though not quite as hot, the chiles that spike a dish of sesame chicken over udon noodles gave a needed lift to a relatively straightforward dish. As you might have noticed, nearly every dish I tried brought the heat, and while nothing was as searingly hot as, say, authentic Thai cuisine, it was well above St. Louis' default comfort level. A welcome change.
Along those same lines, however, I wanted more variety among the menu selections, if only a dish or two to highlight the proud tradition of noodle dishes among Asian cuisines. (I would gladly trade the menu's predictable inclusion of pad thai for a Japanese soba dish.) Right now the formula is predictable: noodles + protein + vegetables.
Portion sizes are very generous. Thrifty students (and the rest of us) could make two meals out of the noodle dishes. Indeed, for Wash. U. students, this might be the ideal off-campus restaurant — except for the very un-college hours it keeps. This I discovered the hard way, when my wife and I tried to have dinner there on a Friday evening. At a quarter to nine, even though there were, by my count, half a dozen tables occupied, the front door was locked, and the woman behind the counter waved us away, mouthing, "We're closed."
When we attempted to return for lunch after 1 p.m. the next day, the restaurant was dark, even though its lunch hours supposedly run till 2 p.m. While I sympathize with employees wanting to call it a night or an afternoon, this was an eyebrow-raising lack of professionalism. If you don't want to serve people close to 9 p.m., then state your closing hours as 8 or 8:30. You have a very good little restaurant in an ideal location, but who (besides me) would bother to come back after being turned away twice within 24 hours?