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Grab your chopsticks, because soup’s on in Old Saybrook

As a town, Old Saybrook has several things going for it: rich history; a theater; beaches; and many, many great places to eat. 

Still, Saybrook isn’t the first place I would've pointed to as a likely noodle-bar destination. New Haven? Sure. New London? It could happen. Well, I stand corrected and heartily recommend the delightful AJ Noodle Bar, tucked into the warren of businesses at 210 Main St.

The bonus? AJ Noodle Bar offers a small selection of bubble teas, milky concoctions with a dollop of tapioca pearls, which previously didn’t do much for me elsewhere. AJ’s has nailed the sweet-to-dairy ratio and our samples were surprisingly refreshing. During one visit, I sat outside sipping my Matcha bubble tea, a potent powdered green tea with sugar and milk ($6.50), and a gent walked out of the AAA office and called, “Those are to die for! I have one every morning.”

On another visit, the mister and I both tried the Thai bubble tea, a light-orange spiced black tea with milk and sugar ($5.50) and we both loved it. Indeed, Mr. I'm Not A Sweets Guy demolished our Thai tea after my first few sips, tapioca pearls and all. He's paying next time.

Of course, I don’t think that will take much persuading, because we enjoyed everything we sampled at AJ Noodle. Our first round of tasting included the pork gyoza appetizer (six for $6.50) and the Japanese Udon Stir Fry with chicken ($12). I’ve sampled gyoza at several other eateries, and AJ’s are the best I’ve tasted, starting with the toothy-chewy-lightly-crisp wrappers. The flavor nuances within each little dumpling also separate AJ’s from their peers, with no overpowering fry-prep flavor and a whiff of onion essence throughout to boost the pork filling flavor.

I liked the udon stir fry, and the mister loved it. Our top reason? The thick udon noodles, which clung nicely to the numerous small pieces of chicken and veggies throughout, delivering the sum of the parts reliably with each bite. I noticed the flavor of the few seaweed strips I spotted in the mix, which at first was all I tasted, but once the dense dish of noodles cooled down, the flavors married together well.

We went bigger on our second visit, which was when we discovered our new favorite thing: the bulgogi ramen soup ($14), which I truly feel will cure whatever might ail a person. Bulgogi beef is thinly sliced and grilled, thereby adding one distinctive layer of flavor to the big bowl of goodness. Elsewhere in the bowl was half a marinated egg (ajitama); a handful of sweet and tasty corn; scallions; bamboo shoots (menma); and, of course, loads of long, slightly firm wavy noodles. The resulting broth is heavenly, with buttery notes (sorcery!) and subtle but fully realized base beef flavor. Highly recommended. We’d started off the meal with an order of edamame ($5.50 for a heaping bowlful) and discovered that steamed soy beans go very well with savory soup — maybe it was the saltiness and popcorn-y notes of the beans that contributed or maybe they’re just fun to eat. (And they’re just fine alone, too.) Either way, another win.

The ramen set a high bar that the rest of our meal certainly approached. My hibachi chicken ($13; also available with beef, shrimp and veggies only) arrived prepared and ready to go, so those looking for the typical egg-tossing, saki-squeezing floor show are out of luck. All of the dish’s components — veggie medley of zucchini, onion, and carrots; perfect white rice; and tasty, tender chicken — hit all the right texture and flavor notes, but everything could’ve been a bit hotter when it arrived at the table. Not a big deal; the kitchen was very busy with the two servers doing a hell of a job tending five tables of in-house guests and about as many take-out customers standing by. The rush probably explains why we had to remind our server about the second appetizer we ordered, which arrived after the entrees. The agedashi tofu ($6.50) was worth the wait (and very hot), with an excellent balance of airy crunch from a light fry on the outside and softened but not too chewy tofu on the inside. They were great alone and even better with the accompanying vinegar-y dipping sauce and finely shredded carrot strips.

Perhaps the one thing better than the ramen was the excellent service and overall vibe of the place. Our hosts were quite busy but incredibly pleasant and welcoming, and you can feel just how invested they are in their enterprise, which only opened a few months ago. They are most certainly on to something and just might make Old Saybrook a noodle destination after all.


AJ Noodle Bar

210 Main St., Old Saybrook

Phone: (860) 339-3660

Atmosphere: Modern, understated-chic decor; impeccably clean dining room with about six tables that sit four comfortably, plus seats at two bar areas. Note: 210 Main is a sprawling plaza with several businesses at that address. AJ Noodle Bar is in the area behind Paperback Cafe, a few steps from the AAA office.

Cuisine: Japanese fusion, including several ramen and noodle dishes, rice bowls, and tempura and hibachi options. Also: Bubble tea!

Hours: Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.; closed Tuesday

Service: Pleasant, helpful, and welcoming

Prices: Average for the fare. The most expensive items are priced at $16 (shrimp tempura, shrimp hibachi and beef hibachi). Ramen dishes range from $12 to $14; apps start and $3 for miso soup and go up to $8.50 for the pork buns

Reservations: N/A

Credit cards: Accepted

Handicapped access: No stairs to enter. Though the interior isn't huge, the set-up offers a lot of room to maneuver. Lots of parking available in the plaza parking lot.


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