Not long ago, a trio of mega-chain franchises said sayonara to downtown Burlington. The Dunkin' Donuts on Main Street, once a late-night hangout for those seeking coffee and a sugar rush, has been replaced by locally owned Junior's Downtown. The McDonald's on Bank Street is McGone. And Quiznos' toasted sandwiches have disappeared from Church Street, soon to be replaced by burritos from a much smaller, New England-based chain called Boloco, which boasts tofu, brown rice and humanely raised meats among its offerings.
Boloco's entrée into Burlington could be a sign of the times. It's one of three younger, hipper, restaurant "concepts" — chains, but not household names — that have recently touched down around the Queen City. The other two, Wings Over Burlington and Nothing But Noodles, serve hungry shoppers and office workers from the Blue Mall on Dorset Street, right across from the University Mall. All three of these eateries belong to small but growing franchises, each with fewer than 25 current locations. All promise to deliver fresh food quickly at reasonable prices, without the rushed, mechanized feel of a true fast-food joint.
To see how well the "fast-casual" concept succeeds, I made a couple of visits to Nothing But Noodles. What I found was comfy seating, friendly service that was occasionally forgetful, and food that was fairly priced and not over-processed, but also not thrilling. Plus a few silly, gimmicky touches that give the place a corporate feel.
Let's start with the alliterative title. For a place called Nothing But Noodles, this one serves a lot of dishes that don't contain a single strand of linguine, fettuccine or anything else in the pasta family. Not including desserts, the menu offers 24 dishes with noodles and 22 without. Perhaps a more accurate name would be More Than 50 Percent Noodles, or Noodles Plus? Then there's the logo, which looks like a measuring spoon with flames shooting out of it — and might make more sense for an eatery called Nothing But Habañeros.
Another cutesy touch is the inclusion of cotton candy on the dessert menu, with the promise "If you loved it as a kid, you'll love it as an adult even more." I'm willing to bet they're wrong about that. In any case, what does a confection typically served at fairs and carnivals have to do with international noodle cuisine? And seeing a busy staffer stop what he was doing to put together the bulbous cotton candy maker and whip up a few batches made me curious about whether the novelty is good for workflow.
Whether dining in or taking out, customers order and pay at the counter, which means facing the poster-sized menu on the wall and choosing the best bet while other patrons line up to the rear. On my first visit to Nothing But Noodles, under pressure to select, I confronted an unusual problem. As a career eater, I pride myself on an ability to order "well" by guessing what a restaurant does best. When I encounter a pizzeria owned by a Greek family, I make a point of trying the spanakopita and baklava. When I land in an out-of-the-way joint in Tennessee, I eschew burgers and chicken fingers in favor of piles of hickory-smoked pork BBQ.
At Nothing But Noodles, though, I was adrift — and I didn't even know whether I was adrift in the Mediterranean, the Pacific or the Atlantic. With offerings from cuisines as diverse as Italian, Chinese, Japanese and classic Americana, the pan-cultural pasta concept left me no guidelines. Had I been so inclined, I could have matched potstickers with beef stroganoff and cheesecake, or a barbecued chicken salad with a Thai peanut stir-fry.
I decided to play it a little safer. The order made, we tried to find a clean table among ones topped by dirty dishes. The extremely young staffers looked harried as they answered the briskly ringing phones, ran piles of pasta to seated customers, and opened bottles of wine to pour small yet pricey glasses. (The food may be inexpensive, but the booze isn't: My 12-ounce Long Trail Ale weighed in at $4.49.) We swooped on a booth that was being bussed and settled in, fully expecting the server to come back and clean a sizable blob of spilled rice grains from the table. She didn't until we asked.
On a lunchtime visit, my dining companion and I were offered "sharing plates" but didn't receive them, and we got a half-sized salad instead of the larger one we ordered. The good news is that such mistakes were corrected promptly.
But what about the food itself? We soon found that, for all the untamed electicism of the menu, many of the individual dishes were well conceived. The DIY Thai lettuce wraps ($6.49) arrived unwrapped, with a stack of fresh lettuce leaves on one plate and sweet red pepper slices, julienned carrots and a mound of chicken chunks mixed with bits of juicy jicama and flavored with soy on another. I also enjoyed the fresh spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette ($5.99 for a full portion, $3.99 for half) topped with thin slices of pear, bleu cheese crumbles and walnuts.
A big plate of farfalle with Nothing But Noodles' "soon to be famous" homemade marinara ($5.99) hit the spot. The bright, fresh-tasting tomato sauce was speckled with bits of onion and herb flecks. Although my dining companion found the bow-ties a strange noodle choice for the dish — "When I think of bow-ties, I think of kasha varnishkes," he mused — I liked how the sauce got trapped in crevices of the pasta. An allotment of four cheesy breadsticks came with a dish of the same chunky sauce.
The peanut noodles with added chicken ($9.68) featured thick, slightly chewy rice noodles with slices of white meat and all the veggies from the Thai lettuce rolls, plus some scallion slices. The noodles were coated with just the right amount of zesty, nutty sauce.
I appreciated a serving of oblong lobster ravioli ($9.99) that actually tasted like seafood. The puddle of delicate chipotle cream sauce complemented the flavors without overwhelming them. However, I found that, with cream sauce and ricotta in the filling, the thick gobs of browned mozzarella topping the dish made for dairy overkill.
Although it was inoffensive, my least favorite pasta dish was the shrimp scampi ($9.99), which was pallid when it could have been piquant. The angel hair was just a hair overdone — being so skinny, it's the hardest pasta to get right — and the sauce lacked the lemony kick I expected. Luckily, the portion of quarter-sized shrimp was generous enough for any hungry flamingo.
Overall, the oddest offering was a bowl of cheesy broccoli soup du jour ($4.79). I had an inkling that it consisted of powdered-cheese-sauce mix, diluted with milk or cream and poured over a miniature forest of perfectly cooked, bright green florets. Each spoonful left a gritty film on the roof of the mouth.
Although Nothing But Noodles doesn't offer bread baskets — no need to risk overloading one's customers with free carbs — breadsticks do abound. The pasta marinara, shrimp scampi and lobster rav each came with a doughy, cigar-shaped version that allowed me to mop up some, but not all, of the excess sauce. Unaccountably, in an example of con-fusion cuisine, the Thai noodles were paired with a pair of grissini, or thin and crispy Italian breadsticks. Or perhaps it was intended as a visual pun on chopsticks?
Overall, Nothing But Noodles delivers on its promises. The food isn't memorable, but the place offers a quick fix for the hungry, a family-friendly dining area and food that, with a few notable exceptions, tastes fresh and good. The cotton candy remains unexplained, but that's corporate marketing for you. Let's hope they don't start requiring the staff to wear "pieces of flair."