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Suck It Up 

Slurping is fun at downtown's Noodlecat

When Jonathon Sawyer first described the rationale behind Noodlecat, he said he was looking to have some fun. Why not? "It's noodles in a bowl for $10 to $13."

As a result, Noodlecat now stands in direct contrast to Sawyer's ambitious, elaborate Greenhouse Tavern: a laid-back noodle bar built around the swift and generous pleasures of a deep bowl of ramen. From the playful name and logo to the spare but colorful decor, it's clear that Noodlecat doesn't take itself too seriously — and neither should we.

In reality, though, the place can be as intimidating as hell. During early visits I was like a deer in headlights, gaping at a complex menu loaded with unfamiliar words, ingredients, and dishes. On top of three different categories of noodle soups, each boasting multiple variations, there was a roster of 30 — 30! — additional items diners could order to customize their bowls. In preparation for my second visit, I studied my smuggled menu while looking up terms on the internet.

Despite Sawyer's protestations to the contrary, this is serious food prepared by serious chefs. Moreover, it is a cuisine and concept entirely foreign to most diners who cross the threshold. At a point where we've finally mastered pho, along come Japanese noodles to knock us down a peg or two.

But after the second or third visit, things began to click. For starters, I learned to relax; this really is just noodles in a bowl. Instead of guessing which two or three add-ons might best enhance my bowl of ramen or udon, I simply ask for chef Brian Reilly's recommendations. Indeed, the latest, more streamlined version of the menu replaces individual add-ons with chef recommendations. Most important, I dress for the occasion: Slurping noodles, no matter how careful, is a messy, messy business.

Bowls here are divvied into two categories: traditional versions and Noodlecat's own modern interpretations. Noodles are soba, udon, or ramen, all made fresh by Ohio City Pasta. Every single bowl — and after four visits I've damn near tasted them all — is a unique and fulfilling experience. Portions are robust, and for the quality and meticulous preparation of the ingredients within, prices are reasonable.

Between the soothing ritual of dunking cold buckwheat noodles in dashi-flavored broth to the riot of flavors and textures that is Frogmore stew, it's tough to pick a favorite.

Still, there are standouts. A Low Country spin on Asian noodles, the Frogmore features fat, chewy udon noodles in a rich broth fortified with sausage, potato, corn, and crawfish. Earthy pork miso takes on extra depth with add-ons like a poached egg or kim chee, a spicy blend of pickled veggies. And while its matzo ball is on the dense side, the "Jewish" ramen is a heavenly chicken-broth elixir with firm noodles, thin-shaved brisket, carrots, and dill.

For starters, do not pass up the addictive "egg salad sandwiches": crisp toasts topped with creamy soy-cooked eggs and salty salmon roe. You needn't be a vegan to enjoy the agedashi tofu: crispy fried cubes of firm tofu nestled in a savory soy-based sauce. Takoyaki, an acquired taste, are sweet and savory spherical pancakes flavored with chopped octopus. And every meal should start with Noodlecat's amazing pickle sampler, loaded with housemade kim chee and a host of vibrant pickled veggies.

Noodlecat may be all about the noodles, but the salads merit equal praise. The kim chee version is a zingy toss of chopped napa cabbage, pureed kim chee, pickled veg, and toasted nuts. A refreshing update on the gingery Japanese steakhouse salad, the Old School dresses pert local greens with a vibrant miso vinaigrette.

To drink, bar manager Dean Sauer has assembled a fine roster of beer, wine, and sake by glass and bottle, and he has dreamed up some killer Asian-themed cocktails, like a soju-based margarita with Japanese lime.

Chef Sawyer's unyielding quest for authenticity led him and his wife Amelia to research their concept all the way to Tokyo. He returned with a pair of funny wooden sandals and a newfound knowledge base. Sure, he can wax on about the origins of soba. But he'd still tell us to relax: It's just noodles in a bowl.

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