If, way back in 1799, old David Hudson had had the wherewithal to picture a Chinese restaurant in his namesake village, his mental image might have looked a lot like today's Noble House, Arthur Yuan's pretty little restaurant in the heart of the Western Reserve.
Tucked into a clapboard house nestled behind a white picket fence and tastefully decked out in wide-board wainscoting, brass chandeliers, candlelight, and fresh flowers, this 12-year-old restaurant's two cozy dining rooms could as easily be serving spoon bread and Brunswick stew as sesame scallops and scallion pie. To be sure, the wall art is mostly black-and-white calligraphy, and the wine list includes plum wine and sake (as well as a $200 bottle of Opus One). But such faint nods to ethnicity aren't likely to make diners think they've stumbled into Chinatown: The soft background music leans resolutely toward lilting piano concertos, chopsticks arrive only upon request, and youthful staffers look as though they could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower, if they were inclined to.
Yuan, an engineer turned restaurateur and a native of northern China, says he launched Noble House so he and his buddies would have a place to eat after a round of golf. He expected to be nothing more than a silent partner, but the project took on a life of its own and grew into a full-time passion. Today Yuan's easy commingling of cultures could hardly be more deft. Chinese cuisine is known, after all, for its skillful balance of the yin and the yang, and how better to show it off than by contrasting traditional Asian culinary techniques with all-American ingredients? So it is, then, that the large menu offers Chinese mainstays (moo shu pork, General Tso's chicken) and Western-style favorites (rack of lamb, strip steak, filet mignon). This gentle fusion can result in dishes that are tantalizingly exotic yet reassuringly familiar, with big flavors, exciting textures, and satisfying heft.
In particular, we're thinking of one evening's special of lush filet mignon medallions gently grilled to the requested medium-rare, tossed with lightly stir-fried wedges of onion, zucchini, and red pepper, and zapped with an electrifying black pepper sauce that put ho-hum steakhouse fare to shame. A special of grilled New Zealand rack of lamb, slathered with homemade barbecue sauce and served with pineapple-studded fried rice, sounded similarly irresistible. Oh well, maybe next time: The dish was sold out by the time we placed our order.
While the Amer-Asian creations are the menu's most interesting items, the Chinese kitchen staff also does a generally commendable job with more customary preparations. If a vegetarian starter of spinach-and-tofu soup was thin and bland, the Noble House version of satiny hot and sour soup was extraordinary: dense, piping hot, crammed with slender threads of pork, tofu, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and egg, and riotously seasoned with vinegar and black pepper. Equally sinus-clearing and taste-bud cheering was an entrée of cheng du scallops: 10 slightly chewy sea scallops stir-fried in a high-wattage chile-pepper sauce, then toned down with emerald-green spinach leaves and a bit of vegetable-flecked fried rice. (These and other spicy dishes are clearly identified on the menu.)
Among the less fiery options, lobster spring rolls were vaguely disappointing for their stingy lobster-to-cabbage ratio, though their crunchy golden wrappers -- astonishingly thin! wondrously frangible! -- nearly made up for it. Homemade ginger-garlic soy sauce and a chaser of astringent hot sake put some pizzazz into a small scallion pie, a double-layered pancake filled with chopped scallions. A main dish of lightly breaded shrimp, stir-fried with onion and ginger, brushed with a barely opaque white-wine reduction, and served on a bed of celadon-colored sliced cucumber, appealed to both the eye and the palate. And pan-fried egg noodles -- light, delicate, and completely ungreasy -- topped with a modest amount of finely sliced pork and satiny spinach were delightful: moist and slightly chewy in the center, where they had soaked up the savory sweet-smoky brown sauce, but shatteringly crisp around the still-dry edges.
While serving sizes are plenty adequate, it's still fun to round out a meal with a dish from the "primarily vegetables" section of the menu. Generous portions of lush sautéed spinach, say, or slender green beans stir-fried with salty-sharp bits of ground pork and preserved vegetable add dimension to a dinner and are more than large enough to share around the table. Which is a good thing: On a day when fresh green beans were selling at our local Tops for $2.49 per pound, $13.95 for a plate of these beauties seemed painfully inflated, leading a waggish companion to declare, "Noble House: Prices fit for a king!" Sarcasm aside, though, if going out for Chinese is usually your idea of a cheap date, think again before making reservations here. With starters, entrées, desserts, and a glass of wine or two, a couple can easily rack up an $80 tab.
Typically, Chinese "desserts" are nothing more than fresh fruit or, perhaps, rice pudding; but here again, Noble House aims to accommodate a Western palate and makes available a regularly changing rotation of yummy contemporary desserts. Mostly prepared by a local pastry chef, sophisticated creations such as bread pudding drizzled with white chocolate, chocolate-banana cream pie, and Boulder Torte (a toothsome little citadel of bittersweet chocolate, caramel, and pecans topped with whipped cream) join made-in-house fried banana wontons and coconut ice cream at meal's end. Together with service that was friendly and enthusiastic, they left us feeling sleek and well-cared-for.
Later at home, we took the neatly packaged leftovers out of the bag and discovered that our gracious server had added two full containers of rice and a couple of fortune cookies to round out the remains. We snapped apart a cookie to find one of the usual generic predictions: "Your determination will bring you much success." Yeah, okay. On the other side of the paper, though, was a translation of a simple phrase into Chinese. "Zhe dun fan chi-de hen hao," it read: "That was a very good meal."
They sure got that one right.
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