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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Pasta With Pretense : Pizza far outshines Noodles' namesakes, with a couple of exceptions. Pizza bread sandwiches are a good bet, though.

February 26, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Noodles is a highly derivative Glendale pizza and pasta cafe that attempts to push all the high-concept restaurant buttons. Catch the place on an off night and the only buttons pushed are likely to be the ones on your clothes.

Owner Jeff Williams does deserve a good deal of credit for giving Glendale's restaurant scene a mighty shove. Noodles may be a pale clone of Pasadena's Parkway Grill and even, to a lesser extent, an industry giant such as Spago, but it represents a pioneering effort in this city. Williams keeps busy. He also owns nearby Clancy's Crab Broiler, Jax, Hondo's and the Star Cafe up in Montrose, all of which are popular local institutions.

The cafe itself is bright and cheerful, full of squiggly, twisted conceptual art, the requisite amount of exposed overhead ducts and slightly discomforting furniture, spare and functional to the max. The centerpiece is a wood-fired brick pizza oven from which the cafe's best dishes spring. This last fact, incidentally, is hardly lost on the public. Come here on a Friday or Saturday evening and expect a full house.

I'm hard-pressed to remember much of what I ate at Noodles, but I do recall my waitresses: cheerful, high-spirited women who seemed amused by their high-pressure routines. Unfortunately, my party never was. Despite the fact that we had a reservation one Friday evening, the host declined to let us be seated until our entire party arrived, a policy I don't fully agree with.

While we waited, a few of us passed the time at the bar--a casual watering hole smack in the middle of the busy dining room--noshing on a spicy noodle and slivered almond mix while sipping our watered-down margaritas. Finally, the group assembled and we were seated. Thankfully, food came quickly. The kitchen at Noodles, it seems, is amazingly quick on the draw.

That could be a major part of the problem. Most of the dishes are eminently forgettable. Creamy pastas, a large part of Noodles' menu, are generally gluey. Grilled items tend to be pretty flavorless.

The best way to start is with one of the thin-crust pizzas. B.L.T.A. is bacon, romaine lettuce, tomato and avocado, and the mix works surprisingly well as a pizza topping (though I'd like it better if they left the lettuce off). And barbecued chicken pizza does the kitchen proud: roasted white meat, ultra-thinly sliced red onion, just the right amount of smoked Gouda cheese and a touch of cilantro. The pizza oven's calzoni don't get off nearly as lucky. Cut one open and stand back as a mass of watery cheese runs out.

One good bet, lunch or dinner, would be a pizza bread sandwich. The fillings are unpretentious things such as roasted turkey breast with garlic mayonnaise and spicy Italian sausage with onions and peppers, and they come on great, chewy fresh rounds of bread right out of the oven.

But pretentiousness rules the pastas at Noodles, which is pretty disappointing when you think about the name of the place. Andouille sausage and shrimp fettuccine tastes good for a few bites, thanks to a good spicy sausage and plump shrimp, but then the green chile pesto sauce becomes cloying in the extreme. Ditto for fettuccine mixed up with oyster mushrooms, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and garlic in a white wine cream sauce. This dish reminds me of what the Swiss chef Hans Stucki once said: "Sometimes the most important ingredients in a dish are the ones you leave out."

Ironically, the best "pasta" I tried at Noodles was an appetizer called crispy lobster ravioli. It was deep-fried pastry pockets with a Chinese-style stuffing. Scallop-and-prosciutto-stuffed mushrooms are another good appetizer, by the way. The mushrooms are broiled in herbed garlic butter, and the tiny bay scallops with their bacon-flavored wrappers complement them beautifully.

Most of the desserts here are heavy-handed and seriously sweet. One that is almost too rich for words is chocolate caramel walnut torte, a dense fudgey torte with a thick ribbon of gooey caramel and halved walnuts running through the center. There's a garden variety carrot cake, a light and fluffy cheesecake topped with kiwi and other berries that has been unfortunately named California cheesecake, and more of the same ilk.

And in case you're interested, these are sweets that pop buttons as opposed to pushing them.

Where and When Location: Noodles, 215 N. Central Ave., Glendale. Suggested Dishes: crispy lobster ravioli, $5.95 (half order), $9.95 (full order); scallop-and-prosciutto-stuffed mushrooms, $4.95; barbecue chicken pizza, $8.25; roasted turkey breast sandwich, $6.25. Hours: Lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Price: Dinner for two, $25-$40. Full bar. Complimentary valet parking in rear. American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Call: (818) 500-8783.

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