Sunday, November 22, 2009

Bloated Belly

We've been a hot streak lately, restaurant-wise, and exulting about our good fortune to live in this city. We knew it had to come to an end somewhere, sometime. We didn't figure it would be at the Urban Belly.

Everything—everything—about the Belly was calling out in goodness to us. (Wow, what's with the Palin-esque syntax?) For starters, it's in a neighborhood strip mall, not far from Kuma's Corner and next to a Laundromat that commandeers most of the parking. It doesn't take reservations, it has communal seating, it's quite wee, and its focus is exactly the sort of food we miss most from St. Paul: Asian soups and noodles.

(A brief aside here to underline for those unaware that University Avenue in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood is dense with cheap, intense Southeast Asian restaurants. There's Cheng Heng, which features soups thick with quail eggs and jalapenos; Little Szechuan, where we can't stop eating the Kung Pao Chili Shrimp, the Dan Dan Noodles, and the Eggplant with Garlic; Saigon Restaurant and Bakery and its crunchy banh mi stuffed with fragrant, mysterious pork pastes; and even Ngon, which is to some of the other places as Noodles & Company is to Otto but is nevertheless a festival of cilantro-y goodness.)

Actually, the aside perhaps tells the tale: we have had fantastic urban Asian soups and dumplings, and Urban Belly, you just don't measure up.

Let's start with truth in advertising. If you're not going to take reservations, you're going to be crowded, and the line forms principally down a narrow hallway from the dining room to the kitchen and bathroom. That's fine. While you're there, you need to peruse the menu, because you place your order and pay for it before sitting down. That's fine, too. What is not fine is describing dishes in the de rigueur minimalist fashion but then delivering things dominated by other, nonlisted ingredients. Thus, "lamb & brandy dumplings" were four admittedly quite tasty little dough packets nestled amid a monstrous fuzzy raft of edamame (which to me taste like socks). Similarly, the squash/bacon ones had a palatable texture yet were drenched in what Watson said was ponzu, yuzu, or one of the other -zu flavors but to me tasted distinctly of Lemon Pledge.

This might be a quibble. After all, if one can actually stomach edamame (or if one's intestinal tract needs a good buffing and polishing), then there's no problem with either dish. What's not a quibble is the poor quality of the noodle soups. The Soba Noodles with Bay Scallops, Oyster Mushrooms, and Thai Basil Broth were a grayish swampy mess of indistinguishable flavors. The scallops had that off flavor from one too many defrosting/refrosting cycles, and the "fish dumplings" that floated alongside them tasted like congealed glue. It was only slightly better than what I imagine poking around in a week-old bowl of pureed hippopotamus would be like.

Watson went for the Udon Noodles with Shrimp, Coriander, and Sweet Chili Lime Broth. It is very hard to seriously screw up udon, and indeed the noodles themselves were fine—chewy but not too chewy, gummy but not too gummy. But the shrimp had that same gummy texture—and the same off flavor that ruined the scallops. The broth was thin and uninspired, more reminiscent of dishwater than of sweetness, chilis, or limes. Perhaps the best part of the meal was the chewy ginger candies that we were given on our way out—ginger candies countenance a lot of culinary shortcomings.

One other thing about the ambiance: when is the communal seating trend going to be over? It makes brilliant sense for the restaurateur—it's easier to clear tables, and it reduces expectations for service. And yes, occasionally you do have a nice chat with a stranger who likes (or, in the event, hates) the same kind of food you do. But equally often you get crammed next to a foursome of sorority sisters with the collective IQ of a bottle of Noxzema, and you have, like, to hear all about how, like, uh-mazing New Moon is or like whatever. It's like being back in a school cafeteria, proving that expeditiousness is not an unmitigated good.

Next time, we're heading to some of the Argyle Street options—where, to judge from the local chatter, we might have better started out in the first place.

(Special hat-tip to our blogosphere—and real life—pal, the Bloated Belly.)

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