New London's Noodles & Rice Bistro presents Thai cuisine elegantly

Some years back, my pal Pete Huoppi, The Day's director of multimedia, and I were intrigued by the preponderance of pizza places in our region. We made a hopefully amusing video about the sheer, ah, pizza-ness of it all, and it included a segment on Long Hill Road in Groton, where there were actually three pizza places located next-to-next-to-next to one another!

Well, time rolls on and only one of those restaurants is still there, but that such a thing could happen in the first place — with all three flourishing for a long time — remains a source of great appreciation by me. I'm starting to feel similarly about New London and Thai restaurants. We have three Thai restaurants in our little city, and, while they don't line up in tight succession, they ARE all on Bank Street within several hundred yards — close enough to javelin-toss a skewer of chicken satay from one to the next.

Noodles & Rice Bistro is the newest of the three, across from the old Salvation Army store. Jasmine Thai, the longest-tenured Thai spot, is in the small strip center at Bank and Howard. And the Lazy Leopard is the one nearest the Parade Plaza.

I wish all these restaurants continued success, and we've been longtime fans of Jasmine Thai and the Leopard. We've only recently been introduced to the similarly estimable charms of Noodles & Rice Bistro, and it, too, is a winner.

The dining room, with wood grain tables and pillow-topped chairs, has a black and orange color scheme, with ornate gold hanging art. There's a small bar and seating area to the rear, partially obscured by a waist high partition, and, up front, there are giant windows looking out on Bank Street. Great people watching — and, in New London, that can mean a lot! In the words of a dining companion on one visit, as we lingered with after-dinner drinks, "This place just makes me feel comfortable."

The menu is relatively small but thought-out to nonetheless give diners plenty of choices. For example, a clever "Create a Gourmet" section allows you to select one of eight "proteins" — seafood, steak, tofu and chicken variables — and one of eight sauces — curry options, chili, ginger, spicy basil, cashew — then marry them to steamed jasmine rice and a melange of sauteed vegetables.

Starters, soup and salads include standards like spring rolls, satays, Tom Yum soup and more. These whet the appetite for noodles & rice plates, full-meal "noodle soup" recipes, "signature" platters (scallops, tofu steak, lemongrass chicken or a mix grill), and blackboard specials.

Over two visits with friends, we tried a nice variety. The food is very good, and the presentations are gorgeous. Here are some thoughts working our way through the possibilities.

To start:

Lemongrass Chicken Skewer ($8) — Four small glass bowls each supports a double-stack of sliced, fork-easy, marinated breast tattooed with grill marks and indeed skewered and sprinkled with sprigs of lemongrass. There's a dipping bowl of sweet chili sauce. I loved this and it could easily serve as a modest lunch/dinner unto itself.

Fried Vegetable Spring Roll ($6) — Three hot, perfectly crispy tubes filled with cabbage, carrot, noodles and taro root, served with a lovely dipping sauce that accelerates cleverly from sweet to heat.

Thai Chicken Wings ($10) — This was a special, and we wanted to see what "Thai" might mean to this tavern staple. Actually, we couldn't really discern anything "Thai." Not bad, but Rod Cornish is 20 yards down the street.

Chicken & Lemongrass Dumplings ($6) — Four delicious, large specimens in a lovely bamboo steam basket. Nice ground chicken flavor and delicate, chewy wrappers. Small quibble? The dumplings were room temperature on delivery, but we asked for extra chili sauce to add torque.

Entrees:

Pineapple Curry with Salmon ($22, also available with steak or duck) — One of two blackboard specials we tried. This. Was. Outstanding. A plank of moist, fresh salmon floated regally in a velvety, rich sauce gently kissed by the titular pineapple. A hockey puck of steamed white rice was served separatedly for discretionary use, and arrayed around the fish like happy acolytes were sliced, steamed vegetables including lotus root, Japanese squash, Brussels sprouts, red and orange peppers, sugar snap peas and on and on — all of which were designed to provide amazing taste explosions with each bite.

Pad See Ew with Tofu ($12, also available with chicken or vegetables, shrimp, $15, or grilled flat iron steak, $14) — These wide noodles, with an amazing mouth-feel, form the perfect base for the al dente broccoli, squiggles of bok choy, carrots, egg, and a fabulously rich, sweet and dark soy sauce.

Thai Pink Soup aka Yen Tha Foo ($13) — It contained lovely shrimp, mysterious fish balls, flat noodles, a little bit of bok choy that would have been easier to eat had it been chopped, and cilantro. It, too, was made lovely by the delicious chili sauce I added to it.

Lobster and Shrimp Pad Thai ($23) — Our other blackboard selection. Though lacking an anticipated zing in overall flavor, this was indeed soothing on a cold February night. The shrimp were rich and companionable, especially in combination with a robust lobster tail triumphantly flayed atop the center of the dish — all of it mixed over a playful heap of translucent noodles and life-affirming bean sprouts.

Panang Curry ($14) — This one came from the "create a gourmet" board. It started with steamed jasmine rice and sautéed carrots, baby bok choi, broccoli, sugar snap peas, mushroom, Japanese squash, Brussels sprouts, pepper and lotus root — topped in this case with panang sauce, which was thick and savory, with lots of spice and gentle asterisks of sweet coconut milk and citrus. The toothsome tofu came in three vast blocks of fried deliciousness.

Note for those who are thirsty: the N&R folks have a clever and extensive specialty cocktail menu. For example, the Mekhong Sangria ($9) spangles together red wine, orange juice and a Thai spirit in a stemmed glass with a slice of grapefruit. Lovely ombre tones and a refreshing taste. Also worth noting: the house Chardonnays and Malbecs are generously poured and worked beautifully with the food.

We're lucky in New London to have three terrific Thai food options, and Noodles & Rice Bistro is a welcome member of that triumvirate. I think we as hungry and kind citizens should be wise enough to rotate amongst these restaurants to ensure they all thrive.

Noodle & Rice Bistro

165 Bank St.

New London

(860) 443-4444

Cuisine: Elegant Thai, beautifully and imaginately presented

Atmosphere: Lovely with plenty of "special occasion" touches but still casual enough for drop-in dining

Service: Polite, solicitous

Prices: Moderate at both lunch and dinner servings; nothing over $25

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Tuesday; dinner 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday and Thursday, 4:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Handicap access: Short step up from sidewalk into main room

Reservations: Call weekends

Credit cards: All majors

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