When the Union Square Pan-Asian noodle joint Republic opened seven years ago, it was a novelty: an accessible Americanized take on the greatest-Asian-noodle hits, served in a boisterous, industrial-chic commissary setting. Something about the new United Noodles reminds us of Republic, minus the spartan benches. In a high-design East Village space with thrown-open glass doors and a dining room that feels like a futuristic train car, the kitchen delivers Asian classics and Asian-American fusion with uncommon finesse.
UN, as the sign and menu read, isn't your typical noodle parlor: Less Tampopo than 2001, it combines bold graphics, a modern design, and a hip vibe with a fresh take on fusion, courtesy of Thai-American chef Paul Chantharavirooj, who strives to liberate the noodle from its Asian confines. "I'm more Americanized than the owners," who are Thai, says the California-raised chef, who's cooked at Union Pacific and Patina in Los Angeles. "They wanted curry. I didn't."
What he wanted instead was to plunder the Italian kitchen for pasta, to raid Eastern and Western produce bins with equal abandon, and even to dabble in such haute cuisine fads as foam. The menu, delivered in a plastic CD case, lists eight non-noodle appetizers and seven noodle entrées. Shrimp are ubiquitous; they're especially delicious charred and splayed out over a classic green-papaya salad chock-full of chopped peanuts, dried shrimp, and enough citrus juice and zest to satisfy the RDA for vitamin C. A tangle of seaweed, fried tofu cubes, and kimchi molded into a hillock is as deliciously fiery and chewy as the papaya salad is cool and crisp.
Don't order the tower of shrimp wontons if you're craving dumplings: Chantharavirooj deconstructs them, assembling a stack of fried wonton skins, each lavished with a dice of apples and oranges, spinach, and a single perfect bite of shrimp. Thin-skinned crab ravioli are adrift in a gingery consommé studded with the same golden beets that brighten up his citrus-and-miso-dressed mesclun salad. And it's no surprise that the forest-mushroom rolls are so popular: The fresh, delicate rice-paper-wrapped bundles sit in a puddle of peanut sauce that demands triple-dipping.
After such vibrant appetizers, some of the more subtle noodle dishes taste a tad subdued. Orecchiette with melted cherry tomatoes and shellfish isn't one of them. It's a bizarrely delicious East-West brainstorm that tastes like something Mario Batali might conjure up on Iron Chef if he were handed a bag of dried bonito flakes as the secret challenge ingredient. Chantharavirooj showers the dried-fish shavings over the ear-shaped pasta, enlivened with a touch of red curry, mint, and basil, and teeming with mussels and baby clams.
By comparison, UN-style chicken linguine (actually soba) seems tame in spite of a generous grind from the pepper mill. Likewise, fat, toothsome pappardelle, with its creamy-sweet emulsion and harvest of corn kernels and snow peas -- but no curry flavor, as promised on the menu -- is a dish best suited to Iowans and creamed-corn lovers, of which there were a few at our table. The "baby" bok choy that accompanied scrumptious, sturdy spinach noodles and fried tofu cubes in a potent miso broth looked like it had hit adolescence, but that didn't detract from the restorative soup's fresh, nourishing flavor. We're equally enamored of the thin egg noodles in a fragrant shrimp-lemongrass broth, floating like a moat around an island of oyster mushrooms and baby spinach, crowned with tempura shrimp. But there's no better panacea for a heat wave than cold noodles, and soba sashimi, its thin slices of pristine tuna, salmon, and yellowtail arranged on a thatch of wasabi-laced soba under a blanket of shredded nori, might be the perfect antidote for a long, hot summer.
"All the food's light here," says Chantharavirooj, who, like the superattentive co-owner and restaurant designer Kit Thahong, circulates around the dining room. Maybe he's forgetting about the sole dessert, a crowd-pleasing molten chocolate cake. But you shouldn't.
United Noodles 349 East 12th Street (212-614-0155); Dinner, nightly, 5 to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $6 to $9; entrées, $9 to $15. All major credit cards.