Brian Armour and Eman Loubier expand on pop-up idea
It’s easy to see why New Orleans cooks are attracted to the pop-up restaurant trend, with the low overhead of a one- or two-night-a-week culinary experiment. And that’s especially true as many pop-ups find success, even leading to popular brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Such is the case with Eman Loubier, owner of the beloved Riverbend eatery Dante’s Kitchen and now Noodle & Pie, recently opened at State and Magazine streets Uptown.
Loubier had a successful restaurant in Dante’s, but still he was keen to get in on the pop-up action. His thought: traditional Japanese ramen — a daily staple in the Land of the Rising Sun, much less so in the Land of the Brown Pelican.
“Brian Armour was running the kitchen for me for at Dante’s, and we just wanted to play with some of the food,” Loubier says. “We were kind of limited in what we could do with the menu, though; It’d be hard to sell ramen noodles over at Dante’s.
“But people are really into food nowadays, and everyone just telling all their friends really quickly about food trucks and pop-up restaurants. And they are willing to try different kinds of food. So we found a restaurant, Coulis, that a friend of mine owns, and they only do brunch, so they let us use their space at night.”
Loubier — with Armour in tow — started the Noodle and Pie pop-up two nights a week there, prepping ingredients at Dante’s.
As it turned out, New Orleanians were hungry for ramen, not to mention some outstanding homemade pies. After months of careful menu tinkering and testing, Loubier and Armour decided to give Noodle & Pie its own house.
Loubier’s excitement over the ramen and sweets venture was in evidence during a recent visit.
“The old joke in New Orleans is: a thousand restaurants and six recipes. And now people are into a lot of different foods,” he says. “I’m not knocking New Orleans food at all. It’s probably still the best indigenous cuisine in the country, but people are now willing to try new and different things. So, in the last couple of years, we’ve been able to get some really good Vietnamese pho in New Orleans without searching too far, but ramen’s been a little more tough to track down. We’re trying to change that.”
First, be assured: This is not your dorm room “cup o’ noodles.”
The art of ramen is something near sacred in Japan, with chefs training for years and even decades to master the exacting science behind creating, time and again, the perfect noodle.
And while the concept seems simple — wheat noodles in a savory broth with a variety of toppings and condiments — its proper execution can be frustratingly complex.
Now Loubier and Armour — the restaurant’s chef — have the ramen science down, with the help of a custom-crafted computer program that calculates ingredient ratio changes. And it’s generating plenty of buzz.
The menu isn’t just noodle soups and desserts. Small plates abound, and the attention to detail keeps pace with that of the larger menu items.
A recent meal started out with a quick taste of the house-fermented kimchi, spicy and vegetal in the classic Korean fashion, which is also used to flavor certain ramen broths. Appetizing cold starters included a magnificently fresh octopus and pickled shrimp salad ($7), and a helping of creamy, silken tofu garnished with tamarind peanut brittle, thinly sliced cabbage and red onion, and ponzu ($6).
The ample variety of small plates also includes an excellent plate of grilled sardines with a light tomato sauce, herbs and lime ($6). There are also red curry fish cakes ($8) and beef marrow bone with Creole mustard miso glaze ($9).
Then, of course, it was on to the storied ramen. The “Matador” ($11) incorporates the perfectly al dente noodles in a beefy kimchi broth, loaded with rare eye-of-round steak, greens, savory mushrooms, and — the key to any great bowl of ramen — a soft-cooked egg, the golden yolk spilling out into the broth and lending it a perfect, custardy consistency.
The special ramen of the day took us from turf to surf: a white miso crab broth with ginger and lemongrass, topped with Louisiana lump blue crab meat, chili butter, and a fish cake and the requisite soft egg, and finished with a traditional black garlic oil ($10). For those with an affinity for deep, complex flavors of the sea, this bowl is for you.
Then it was time to sample the restaurant’s namesake pies, all made lovingly in-house by pastry chef Mimi Assad, who shuns artificial shortening for the magic of tried-and-true hog lard in her pie crusts.
The bacon-pecan slice ($5), covered in gooey chocolate sauce, was a sweet-savory combo that did not disappoint, nor did the stellar blueberry pie with chantilly cream (also $5), its crust buttery and flaky.
Ultimately, even though opening Noodle & Pie involved thousands of hours of culinary research and exacting recipe testing, Loubier’s mission is simple.
“I just want people to be happy,” he says. “I want my customers to be repeat customers, I want them to come back and keep coming back until they’re full.”