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Food Review: Fan Noodle Bar Asks the Question: Food or Service?

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On paper, the restaurant has all the makings of a hit.

Fan Noodle Bar is tucked away on a prime corner of Main at Strawberry Street and has a kitchen serving until 1 a.m. most nights, plus a menu that includes myriad choices: Thai, tacos, Asian noodles and pizza.

The lively space benefits from Richmond’s de rigueur mural behind the long bar, the space-age-looking vibe of white tables and clear acrylic chairs, and indie music as varied as the Swedish pop of Lykke Li and the synth of the band the 1975 — it usually sounds like a party is about to happen.

The brick-fronted bar makes its intentions quite clear with a happy hour that kicks off at 3 p.m., runs until 7 and includes two-for-$10 appetizer specials, as well as chalkboards touting beer and cocktail options. One is devoted solely to shooters and bombs.

But three meals into the menu, and I’m still trying to figure out where the kitchen’s heart lies.

Easy to pick up, dumplings are the ideal party food — and with five choices, one is bound to spark your taste buds. Shanghai dumplings ($6) feature a satisfying if standard mix of minced chicken, water chestnuts, onions, scallions and shiitake mushrooms. Squash dumplings ($6) deliver a taste of the season with pan-seared butternut squash, sweet potato, red onion and yellow curry powder teasing out the sweetness.

Green curry mussels ($9) are a steal at happy hour ($5), swimming in a broth of coconut milk and green curry paste. But alas, there’s no bread with which to sop the tantalizing broth. We make do with the leftover crusts from a white pizza ($6), which, along with Bangkok pizza ($6), dressed in sweet chili paste, bacon, pepperoni, onion and pineapple, would hit the spot nicely after doing a few shooters or bombs.

The plump grilled shrimp skewers atop green papaya salad ($9), which combines carrot, tomato and peanuts, hit all the right notes when looking for a light start to your meal.

Like most Asian-influenced places, this is a pick-your-own protein deal with choices of chicken, tofu and mixed vegetables ($12), beef, shrimp or squid ($14). Crusted lo mein with crispy chicken ($12) breaks no new ground, but the onions, carrots and scallions taste decidedly fresh. Better yet is Singapore spaghetti ($12/$14) which takes its sass from red curry sauce, alongside broccoli and the ubiquitous bell pepper — a dish that leads to a chopsticks battle for the remaining bites.

Some dishes suffer from a lack of cohesion, as if the ingredients didn’t spend enough time getting to know each other before becoming a unit. That’s the case with rice soup with shrimp ($12) which tastes like a collection of elements — rice, shrimp, egg, cilantro, scallions and ginger — that feel estranged and wholly uninfluenced by their bowl mates. Ditto with the pad Thai ($12), which fails to bowl over my table, and one eater likens to the quality of a frozen entree.

Far more indicative of fraternization is a big steaming bowl of wonton soup ($9.50) with fat cellophane wonton noodles cradling pork, while scallion and cilantro broth impart flavor to Napa cabbage and Chinese broccoli — the crunch factors.

You can’t easily forget the bar part of Fan Noodle’s name because the service won’t let you. On a Saturday night, our server eventually stops by for our order and says she’ll be back after she delivers drinks to another table. Almost 15 minutes later, she remembers us and returns — a forgivable offense had the place been packed, but only two other tables were occupied. On a Thursday evening, we watch as our food hits the window, but our server has her back to it and is so caught up in conversation at the end of the bar that it continues to sit, arriving lukewarm. On a Wednesday during happy hour, service is golden and attentive.

For some diners, service is paramount. But when I’m not wearing my reviewer hat and simply eating out with friends, service doesn’t make or break a restaurant experience because I tend to gravitate to places based on food and an atmosphere that appeals.
How much a fan of Fan Noodle Bar you might become, therefore, depends on your priorities. S

Fan Noodle Bar
Mondays-Saturdays 3 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
2301 W. Main St.
358-2514
fannoodlebar.com

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