Dining Out: Lobster pho, rightly, the star dish at Chinatown’s Lobster Noodle House
Lobster Noodle House
947 Somerset St. W., 613-233-1275, facebook.com/lobsternoodlehouse/
Open: Daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prices: most dishes without lobster under $15, most lobster dishes $20 to $35
Access: steps to dining room
Sorry, ramen lovers. If Ottawa has a municipal soup of honour, it’s got to be pho. In the last three decades, the humble Vietnamese meal in a bowl has grown from a Chinatown secret to a familiar, comforting, beefy presence in strip malls from Orléans to Barrhaven to Kanata.
How, then, is a new pho eatery in Ottawa to stand out?
The one-word answer: lobster.
At Lobster Noodle House, which opened this fall on Somerset Street West just west of Preston Street, the luxurious crustacean pops in several specialties, from appetizers to noodle stir-fries to a gargantuan and expensive bowl of pho that emerges from the kitchen ready for its Instagram close-up.
None of those restaurants feature the word “lobster” in their name. At the very least, then, Lobster Noodle House deserves kudos for going all-in on its concept, in advance of any global hype for lobster pho. If the dish catches on — as Houston-based Viet-Cajun crawfish notably has in the American south — then Lobster Noodle House will certainly be one of its pioneers.
In other respects, Lobster Noodle House is just as modest as other pho joints on Somerset Street West, perhaps even more so. Its dining room, which seats about 40, is a spartan space of white walls and floors and grey tables. Pop music plays on the sound system. The restaurant is not licensed. Nor does it serve any desserts or even Vietnamese coffee.
All the better, perhaps, so as not to distract you from that extra-large bowl of soup that appears to have a whole lobster scuttling out of it ($35; a half-lobster bowl is available for $20). A friend and I split one for lunch last week and it was a good and memorable, if not stellar, meal.
The bowl arrived at our table with not only garnishes but also one lobster cracker and a handful of Wet-Naps. The lobster’s claws and back had been pre-cracked and even scissored, but still, we could have used a second cracker and even some bibs, as wrestling with a whole lobster sitting in broth necessarily involves some splashing. But the extra effort was worth it to extricate heaps of tender claw and tail meat. (Pro tip: you can nicely substitute a chopstick for a lobster pick.)
We did wonder if the lobster would have been even better if we’d been able to de-shell it more quickly so that it didn’t cook further in the broth. For what it’s worth, I’ll note that for the $35 lobster pho at Lime Bar & Kitchen in Irving, Texas, as well as the $18.80 satay lobster soup at Saigon Maxim in Calgary, the kitchen has done some or all of the de-shelling.
One thing that Lobster Noodle House definitely gets right is its choice of condiment for its lobster pho. While my friend at lunch was of the opinion that lobster exists as a conduit for garlic butter, Lobster Noodle House provided a more culturally appropriate condiment — a small, shallow bowl of salt, pepper and lime juice. Typically used to bolster Vietnamese and Cambodian beef, poached chicken or crab dishes, the zesty dipping sauce took our enjoyment of lobster to a new level.
As for the rest of the bowl, it brimmed with a dauntingly large mound of rice noodles, toothsome shrimp and mussels, wedges of corn on the cob, a poached egg, and a few pieces of house-made shrimp cake. These generous offerings were submerged in with what was arguably over-billed as lobster broth — it struck me as a more neutral or chicken-y and salty broth, perhaps with a bit of a lobster infusion to it.
Compared to the lobster pho, other dishes at Lobster Noodle House were, unsurprisingly, anti-climactic.
Lobster claws in tempura ($12 for up to a half-dozen) — served with a mildly spicy mayo but arguably better with that lime-pepper dipping sauce — were not in fact tempura-battered, but instead Panko-coated before they were fried. Larger claws were more succulent than smaller, chewier specimens and seemed like a reasonable indulgence.
Less good were the lobster rice rolls ($7 for two). They were sufficiently meaty, but seemed under-seasoned, and it’s possible that the fallback sauce for such rolls, which is thick and peanut-y, lays it on a bit thick for lobster.
Lobster pad Thai ($20) was adequately lobster-y, but its noodles seemed to miss the sour-sweet-pungent flavour punch that I want from pad Thai.
The restaurant also serves a range of lobster-free pho-house favourites including more than a dozen appetizers, beef and chicken pho, vermicelli, rice dishes and more.
Lobster Noodle House’s bowls of beef pho that we sampled — a spicy bun bo Hue ($15) with slices of shank and a knobbly chunk of beef rib, a more standard bowl of pho bo ($10 for a small bowl) with rare beef and pieces of brisket — were just fine, and blessed with beefy broths that had depth of flavour.
A vermicelli bowl ($11.50) was adequate. Its grilled pork had some char and cooked-in flavour, and its vegetarian spring rolls were fresh and crisp.
Still, Lobster Noodle House strikes me as place that should appeal most to lobster lovers, and then to lovers of Vietnamese food. If you’re willing to shell out the extra dollars and wrestle the animal’s meat from its carapace, you’ll be nicely rewarded. Just remember that it’s BYO-bib.