Oh-so Soho Goood

They'd go again. Ditto.

IF YOU HAVE a date to impress, parents to feed you, or just an urge for great food, you cannot go wrong with Noelles'. Says Trey, "The food's good enough to dress up for, but you don't have to dress up." Says Adam, "Ditto (and I hate dressing up)."

Ask for a table downstairs, where the atmosphere is that of an oh-so Soho art gallery: bare white walls, soft spot-lighting, funky partitioning and, quite fittingly, and exibition of paintings by local artists. The tables are few and well-spaced, giving you plenty of privacy for those intimate games of footsy (sorry about that, Annette). The low ceilings are a little disturbing, but the brightness of the walls--and the food--will soon make you forget the minor discomfort. The paintings are not going to make your eyes bleed; they actually provide a wonderful juxtaposition with the spartan surroundings.

The bread basket doesn't look like anything special, but it's really quite a pick-you-up. The focaccia--served with fresh olive oil, in a swampy herb-filled bottle--is heavenly. It is slightly crispy with a hint of salt and seasoning, and it tastes even better when dipped in the oil. The cornbread, on the other hand, is just too damn sweet (nothing like Rosalita's). And none of us even touched the solitary roll.

The regular menu is an eclectic mixture of the ordinary and the interesting: French and Italian, American and Middle Eastern, Japanese and nouveau whatever. The appetizers are on the boring side. You can get them anywhere, except for the hummus and tabouli, which you can get almost anywhere. We got the calamari ($4.95); the batter-to-squid ratio is favorably low, but the dipping sauce--and the overall dish--is dull.

The real work of art was that night's appetizer special ($4.95), a very light, very large pastry shell filled with a copious assortment of veggies: eggplant, tomato, scallion, mushroom, red pepper. The whole concoction was saturated with a thick, browned butter and garlic sauce, with thinly-chopped parsley subduing the richness. Says Annette, "I hate all of those vegetables normally, but in the medium of the sauce, it was really good." Says Adam, "Ditto (well, really it's the eggplant and mushroom I won't even look at)."

Most of the entrees are a rather typical assortment of seafood, beef, chicken, and pasta. The Gourmet Delights section (each for $9.95) is far more tempting, and rightfully so. All of our entrees were amply-sized, served with perfect timing, and presented with eclat. The Baked Chicken Breast Florentine, stuffed with spinach, tomato and Swiss cheese, got mixed reviews. Says Adam, "The cheese sauce was quite creamy and the stuffing was strong, but not overbearing; I'd get it again." Says Trey, "The odor of the cheese was nauseating; as I was chewing it, I felt the cheese expanding in my mouth like bubble gum." The vote was unanimous on the Shrimp Noelle: an over-generous and uneven dowsing of lemon juice made us wince and killed any hint of butter, garlic and Feta cheese.

The stuffed veal in an apple demi-glazed sauce is Noelles' at its very best, although as one of the night's specials, it cost a bit more ($11.95). The sauce is fruity but not sweet, with subtle hints of apricots, pine nuts, and shallots. Enhanced with the pureed, cinnamonspiced sweet potatos, the demi-glaze is truly sublime when poured over the delicate veal. Indeed, we fought over licking the plate.

The desserts are almost equally accomplished. The Italian cheese cake is smooth, quite smooth--much better than the Chocolate Suicide cake, which was rich but slightly stale. The tirami su, served in a wine glass stuffed with strawberries, is simply exquisite. The espresso flavor is there, but not enough to knock you out, and the lady fingers and cream are pleasantly light. Says Trey, "The bottom piece, dripping with espresso, was a fitting way to end the meal." Says Adam, "Ditto."

You know you've had a good meal--as we did--when you begin the long walk home with a smile, mumbling repeatedly, "That was sooo good." Says us all, "We can't wait to go back."

Restaurant

Noelles' 1755 Mass Avenue, a block or two before the Porter T-stop, on the right side of the street. 491.7750

This week's guest Annette Albright (just a friend)