Inventive new restaurant Noble joins Bank Street options

If you spend any time driving down the one-way "commercial district" of Bank Street in New London — and, oh, I do, three or four times a day — most of the storefronts in the "commercial district" aren't actually empty eyesores. It just sometimes appears that way.

For years, there was also the Exchange, directly across from the Hygienic Art Gallery. In the last year, though, that spot morphed briefly into the awkwardly named Ivy & Azure — but has now been rebranded and reconceptualized as Noble.

Now, if Noble rings a bell for you and you haven't eaten there, it might be because co-owner Joshua Feldman has been in the news lately as one of two local restauranteurs recently indicted in a in a southeastern Connecticut drug trafficking ring that allegedly involved money laundering. Feldman specifically is charged with conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and distributing cocaine.

To my way of thinking, Feldman is innocent until proven otherwise; he also employs several people whose livelihoods come from Noble. We didn't hesitate to give it a try because we've heard excellent things about the restaurant.

It's a lovely place; a huge, open, high-ceilinged spot with a large bar fronting Bank Street and, to the rear, a back deck and glorious views of the Thames. There are exposed brick walls and elements of polished, golden-brown wood and black utilitarian furniture spread out to provide comfortable space. Industrial-style copper ceiling pipes are draped with strands of white holiday lights, and the vibe is very relaxed and the service excellent.

The menu, which I'm told changes with some frequency, is inventive and exciting — and intriguingly presented without any delineation between "appetizers," "entrees," "sides" or whatever. There's a just a list of options and, based on description and price you can sort of infer which is which. The beauty is, the strategy emphasizes that anything goes; mix and match and do what thou wilt.

There's also a designer cocktail menu worth perusing in which drinks are carefully and complicatedly drawn up and finessed with spiced ice cubes, smoke and other touches. An example would be the House Punch ($7), with secret ingredients. It refreshingly balances tart and sweet with a kick, and it is indeed so refined we couldn't determine what liquor was included.

The four of us split kick-off orders of Spicy Vegan Tofu ($9), Mussels ($16), and Brussels ($10). While the simplicity of the respective titles is suggestive, each dish is very calibrated and creative in terms of composition and flavor.

The flash-fried squares of tofu were augmented with broccoli florets and choreographed through Japanese spices, Tamari, sesame, chili threads and mint. Spicy? Yes, but more in terms of flavor than heat. As for the Brussels sprouts, they were joined by smoked walnut bits, real Vermont maple syrup, mustard seed and thyme (disclosure: the dish calls for capicola; in deference to my vegetarian bride, we asked that the capicola be left out). Both these dishes were beautifully nuanced flavor collisions.

The steamed mussels focused on a generous pound of PEI beauties afloat in a white wine sauté including kale, tomato, cream and alliums. Delicious, but that's not all. There were nuggets of a Cajun-inspired chicken sausage, and draped across the entire serving was a thick-cut slice of grilled sourdough crostini — ideal for tearing into hunks to drag through the sauce.

Shiitake Risotto ($14) was seductively good wherein bite-size pieces of the 'shroom were dusted with Pecorino and distributed lovingly through a nice-sized helping of buttery, creamy risotto.

Monkfish was the star component of fish and chips ($15) in what is one of the best versions of F&C you'll find in an area suffused with good versions. The batter was flavorful, with a crunch, and didn't overpower the delicate fish, and the skins-on slivers of fries are addictive. And the house-crafted tartar sauce was rich and tart.

New Zealand Lamb ($24) was so good one of our party declared allegiance to New Zealand and began preparing citizenship papers. Three moderate and succulent chops were cooked with a light touch — precisely so the innate taste of the lamb emerged from strong complementary support of roasted red lentils, English peas and cauliflower, all in a spicy yogurt.

The Rib Eye ($28) was another example of a dominant meat subtly enhanced by a mélange of side components: mashed potatoes, pearl onions, broccoli and mushrooms and a fireworks punctuation in the form of a stunning Luxardo cherries glaze. Very, very good.

The portions at Noble are not overwhelming, and I think that's by design. The idea seems to be to mix and match and experiment. This is not a place where you want to blast in, bolt down some food, and get on your way. There were folks at the bar when we came in who were still there when we left, and ours was not a quick visit. Noble is an experience to look forward to and another solid addition to the oft-derided Bank Street.

Noble

74 Bank St., New London

(860) 574-9013

Cuisine: Inventive contemporary American with surprising twists

Atmosphere: Gorgeous with fun ambience and excellent views of the Thames

Service: Very welcoming and quick

Prices: Very reasonable for the quality of the food; portions are not huge

Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.- 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday

Reservations: Not a bad idea to call ahead for a weekend large party

Handicap access: Slight step up from Bank Street and right turn into very spacious dining area

Credit cards: All majors

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