20 lashes with tasty noodle

Savor it and beg for more at new eatery--stylish joint that hides behind unprepossessing Camelback fašade

By Portobella Vanderbilt Diaz-Thigpen, dining out critic

 

Cherry Blossom Noodle Cafe
914 E. Camelback Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85014
Mon-Thu 11-9
Fri-Sa 11-10
Call for new Sunday hours
602-248-9090

Craving a new, new, noodle ... oh! experience? Perhaps you're thinking Japanese or some other kind of Asian, or are we talking Italian here? As weird as it may seem, you can get the best of all worlds at Cherry Blossom Noodle Cafe. From Yakisoba to Primavera, you have a wide and tempting range of fresh, creative noodle dishes to choose from. (It's not a true "hapa" cafe though, for there are also yummy sushi, imaginative salads and even a touch of Cajun added to this wild and winning combination.).

The restaurant's sign on Camelback Road simply reads "Noodle Cafe." Driving in the small strip mall, you wouldn't think to find such a quaint, Asian fusion cafe nestled within. But as you approach the entrance, the place subtly begins to evince its thoroughgoing class, style and creativity. A pair of bold, white paper lanterns with red and black lettering hang in the front window and a lamppost can be seen sprouting from the floor near the back of the cafe. Wood tables and chairs line the walls while a small bar offers additional seating near the rear. The walls are adorned with tasteful artwork; faux doors/windows and live plants are strategically placed about. Careful attention has been given to simple detail, from the funky ceiling lights to the cool way the cloth napkins are tied.

Our first visit in was mid to late afternoon on a weekday, and, as suspected, the place was somewhat quiet before the dinner rush. We were seated across from the bar by our friendly waitress, so we had a good view of the chefs preparing sushi. We pored over the amazingly extensive and versatile menu, which included Thai, Japanese, Iberian and Italian offerings, as well as some not quite so easily pigeonholed. I likened it to homestyle dinners in the "hapa" household I grew up in, where, mixing homestyle Southern comfort cooking--hominy, ham and whatnot--with authentic Japanese cuisine (my friends were driven away by the sights and smells of the various foodstuffs fermenting in crocks on the porch and in the pantry, plus the ever-present latent "aura" of raw fish) in the same meal was the norm.

On this visit, we settled on a couple of Asian noodle dishes, the Zaru, which consisted of cold buckwheat noodles with a dipping sauce and included panko-style Spanish mackerel on the side; and the Yaki Udon--thick wheat noodles sauteed with seafood and vegetables. We tried some rolled sushi as well: the spicy tuna. Green tea and and Dixie beer from Louisiana rounded out the light meal. As our entrees were brought out, we appreciated the simple yet stylish presentation of food and admired the eclectic, hip mix of china used that ranged from formal to rustic, colorful to understated. The Zaru--a simple Japanese standby--was presented on a functional and elegant bamboo "mat" piece of service, its buckwheat noodles fresh and firm. We fired up the dipping sauce with some hot oil and savored the accompanying mackerel, which was deep-fried to a non-greasy crunchiness. The aromatic Udon was a generous serving embellished with shrimp, calamari and scallops. Delicious and filling--but healthful--there was such abundance of this dish that we could only finish half of it and still leave room for the sushi. There was certainly no room for dessert or Italian on this visit, and with doggie bag in hand, we were already planning our next foray to the Noodle Cafe.

That occurred on a subsequent Friday, and we scored the last available table, surrounded by hangers-on still enjoying their workweek-ending outing and other early evening diners like ourselves Nori, our waiter, quickly seated us and then hurried away. While we had found the service a bit laconic before, that wasn't an option; now the place was hopping. A nearby "daily specials" board caught our eye and featured several items of interest, including a "giant" shrimp spring roll appetizer.

We ordered that and the unagi salad--a combination of mixed greens tossed with a unique blend of reduced balsamic vinegar and teriyaki glaze and topped with freshly char-broiled eel. The spring roll consisted of shrimp, green beans, carrots and cilantro rolled up in a thin crepe and lightly deep fried. It was a beautiful presentation and was adorned by slices of fried, petite eggplant. For our entree, we settled on the calamari with anchovy tomato sauce served on choice of pasta. We ordered it with the spinach pasta, made fresh daily on premises. (We may have muttered our instructions a little too inaudibly--we had to reorder the dish to get it with that noodle selection. But the replacement was made ungrudgingly and it came out promptly, piping hot.) The sauce was robust, the calamari tender and the noodles fresh and firm. Still, the chef erred on the side of discretion with the often-unpopular salty little fish: an extra dose of anchovy flavor would have brought this dish to perfection. Aiming for only a light meal and on notice from our earlier visit, we only ordered and shared one entree so as to have room for dessert.

That portion of the menu offered items from green tea mousse to tiramisu. (Three guesses what we ordered. Right.) The tiramisu was thickly dusted with unsweetened cocoa, and perhaps the idea was that this would mix in the mouth with the liqueur from the ladyfingers and the juice from the fresh, ripe plump strawberries serving as a garnish. Hey, throw in the fresh mint leaves also present and what a taste sensation! Well, it didn't quite work that way, but no matter, the thing was delish and the presentation tres cool. Nori bragged on the mousse, so we filed that under "next time." The cafe also bakes banana walnut and blueberry banana yogurt bread daily sold by the loaf. A Saturday special lists fresh baked Japanese style white Pullman bread to take home.

This place has one of the most inventive menus we've seen in a long time, and that's not surprising with a chef who hails from L.A. and who worked with Wolfgang Puck of Spago and Obachine fame. With more than 30 entrees to choose from on that menu, fascinating opportunities to try new foods and combinations--as well as generous portions and modest prices--you'll be a dedicated fan of Cherry Blossom Noodle Cafe. All it will take is that first venture into the place and--as Arnold would say--you'll be back.