By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005
For many years now, there's been a sort of Asian competition going on on 19th Street NW. In various incarnations -- the old Star of Siam, Cafe Asia, Thai Bistro -- Southeast Asian and pan-Asian restaurants have been staples of the downtown crowd, especially at lunch hour.
These days, the battle is hotter than ever, particularly between Nooshi, an abbreviated nickname for Oodles Noodles and Sushi, and the Singapore Bistro a few doors up. Both offer long pan-Asian menus heavy on noodle dishes in varying accents; both have sushi bars. Prices are very nearly identical. A head-to-head sampling of dishes turned up strengths and some rather surprising weaknesses at each. Singapore Bistro seems to have a slightly broader menu, especially, appropriately, in the Indonesian and Malaysian area, and consequently a more assertive spice palate. Nooshi has what might be termed a more American-savvy sensibility.
When it comes to looks, Nooshi is in a different class than Singapore Bistro. For one thing, it's twice as big, with lacquer-look walls, bright colors, slick black plastic chopsticks, and dishes and platters of varying shapes and designs. The Bistro is all but barren in a mod way, stark white except for the small sushi bar at the rear, which then becomes, not unsuitably, the room's focus. More importantly for some diners, Nooshi is wheelchair accessible, while Singapore Bistro, in the upper floors of a townhouse, is not.
Where Singapore uses ordinary large bowls for its nabeyaki udon (Japanese noodle soup), Nooshi uses a more traditional cast-iron mini-cauldron; tea (a choice of four flavors) is likewise served in squat iron pots, although the tea itself is in bags. And the small steel grid on which Nooshi presents its fried calamari appetizer is a nice thought, allowing any residual oil to drip and the wraps to dry more crisply with the air beneath them than they would in a pile. Both serve drinks with a bit of style, however: Singapore Bistro delivers the cold sake in a champagne flute, while Nooshi keeps bottles of sake in wine coolers and pours into wine glasses. (The goblets are perhaps slightly too large, suited better to the big bouquet of American wine than the neater aroma and crisper taste of sake, but it's a concept.)
When it comes to the food, however, the restaurants are more closely matched, in a seesaw fashion. The sushi at Singapore Bistro has the edge, primarily because the rice is seasoned better and the slicing more consistent. Nooshi's sushi is better than that at many places, but the rice is erratic -- it has been good, but it has been bland and starchy -- and some of the fish is sliced not only unevenly but at something other than the optimum angle, making it tougher than it might be. Both have special sushi deals: Singapore Bistro a list of $1 pieces and cut-price rolls and beer and (hot) sake at happy hour, Nooshi an all-you-can-eat sushi dinner for $25, or $30 for a more extensive list.
(Those interested primarily in sushi should also try Sushi Kappo Kawasaki, the long-standing Japanese restaurant in between the two.)
The fried calamari is a draw, though rather different: At Singapore Bistro, a dish of long tender strips in a seasoned panko crumbing is a very nice and unusually light version, and happily one of the happy hour specials. Nooshi's calamari is cut into rings and has more of a batter, but is also reliably tender. The spring roll is no contest, however. Nooshi's, though no rival to the better Vietnamese versions in town, is reasonably pleasant, crisp and fairly dry, though the filling is heavy (and the "fresh crab" not very apparent). Singapore Bistro's is more like an Asian version of pigs in a blanket, its filling so overprocessed and overpressed -- or leftover -- that it resembled a not particularly interesting dried sausage, and the rice paper was chewy.
Grilled chicken -- served with lime at Singapore Bistro and lemon at Nooshi -- is very close. Singapore's serving is larger, four generous skewers of white meat; Nooshi's is a little more restrained and less regularly cubed, but that's largely because it uses the more flavorful dark meat. (Both offer a satay version as well.) Drunken noodles -- "drunkin," according to Nooshi -- is a more fully realized dish at Nooshi: wetter, so to speak, and with more stir-fried red and green bell peppers and onions, but with a little too much oil lingering. The version at Singapore Bistro is plainer and the noodles less oily but drier, depending on your take; but the minced chicken sauce itself is the better one, with more concentrated flavor and spice. Mee goreng, a popular Malaysian noodle dish, is bigger and better at Singapore Bistro, with a more complex-flavored sauce. The pan-fried egg noodles at Nooshi were a touch undercooked and heavy. In neither case was it "very" spicy, despite special requests, but both had sly heat.
The nabeyaki udon prize easily goes to Nooshi, however. The broth is more flavorful, though not perhaps with the ideal kelp base; there is an egg properly poaching on top, although the onions are a little excessive and the cabbage scanty. The Bistro's version is a much plainer soup whose broth does almost nothing to enliven the heavy, comforting but blandish udon, and which lacked both egg and much in the way of vegetables.