USING HIS NOODLE Chef Tony Ounpamornchai blends flavors of Southeast Asia and the west at SEA Noodle Bar.
I gave up on Thai food. It seems like every Thai restaurant serves the same stuff—green, red and yellow curries. Pad Thai. Fish cakes. Lemongrass-coconut chicken soup. Beef salad. Pad see ew.
I like pad prik king as much as the next guy, but what seemed like an exciting new cuisine 25 years ago has grown predictable.
So when I accepted an invitation from a colleague to try Santa Rosa's four-month-old SEA Noodle Bar, I went with low expectations. The Coddingtown Mall location didn't promise any new culinary frontiers, but the first spoonful of spicy beef noodle soup shut me up. The place is good.
Chef Tony Ounpamornchai owns the beloved SEA Thai Bistro in Santa Rosa's Montgomery Village. "SEA" stands for Southeast Asian and refers to Ounpamornchai's use of neighboring ingredients and preparations. He also cooks with local and Western ingredients too. Maybe it's because he's willing to cross borders that his noodle restaurant is so appealing. And for me, it's all about the noodles.
The best thing about the noodles are the deeply flavorful broths that borrow from Vietnam's tradition of noodle soups like pho and bun bo Hue. Indeed, the spicy beef noodle soup ($13), with its bone marrow broth and inclusion of gelatinous bits of beef tripe, is decidedly pho-like.
The spicy lemongrass noodle soup with wild prawns ($14) swims in an electric, lemongrass, galangal root and kaffir-lime-leaf infused broth. I was pleased the prawns didn't come from a noxious farmed operation, but when I asked where they came from the answer was "the Pacific." That's kinda vague.
My other favorite was the lamb curry noodles ($15), thin slices of tender lamb, water spinach, pickled mustard greens, bean sprouts and half a hard-boiled egg. The vegetable broth is enriched with coconut milk and yellow curry, and the crunchy tang of the pickled mustard greens is a great counterpoint.
The menu offers a choice of noodles: thin or thick rice, mung bean and egg noodles. I tried them all but liked the springy bite of the thin egg noodles best.
The rest of the menu is good, but not as strong as the noodles. The rice bowls are fine but don't add up to much, just some wok-fried ingredients served over rice. The deconstructed pad Thai noodle ($15) with its constituent elements of organic chicken, prawns and tofu arranged around the plate was a novel presentation but otherwise unremarkable.
From the list of starters, the duck spring rolls ($9) are fine but nothing special. Thai papaya salad ($8) falters because its star ingredient should be pucker-tart and crisp but tastes more like the wedge of cabbage it's served with. My favorite by far was the superb pork cheek potstickers ($8).
The restaurant is a great looker. The pendant, glass-domed lights and framed artwork suspended by wire give the place a cool, urbane feel, while the dark wood accents add a warm, handsome touch. The rectangular bar in the center of the room (which has a solid lineup of beer and wine) completes the look.
I know somewhere there is a Thai restaurant that breaks from the norm and serves lesser-known, regional dishes that go well beyond pad Thai and curry. But until then, I'll take SEA Noodle's Bar's unconventional approach.
SEA Noodle Bar 268 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa. 707.521.9087.