Editor's note: In "Fast Food International," Krista Garcia will take us around New York to the many international fast food chains that have landed in the five boroughs. She blogs at goodiesfirst.com.
Country of origin: France
Locations worldwide: Over 50 in France and Belgium
NYC locations: One in midtown
The Atkins era is officially over. In the next few days, New York City will have a total of three new pasta-pushing chains. German Vapiano is slated for University Place and 13th Street this week. Hello Pasta, started by French entrepreneurs, opened their first location on Lexington Avenue earlier this month. We now also have Nooï, an established French franchise that just launched a few blocks south of Grand Central.
The bold red-and-purple color scheme and how-to-order diagrams shout "chain restaurant," yet subtle differences hint at European roots. Or maybe I'm just reacting to the velvet chairs, Evian, and techno music.
So far, the menu has not been localized and is nearly identical to what you'd find in France. The only difference is that our two sizes served in sturdy purple cardboard takeout containers are measured in ounces—26 and 32 rather than 750 and 920 grams, no American supersizing.
Pricing is in three tiers: Solo, (that is, plain) pasta ($3.95/$4.95); Simply Delicious, which includes a few tomato-based sauces and an alfredo ($4.95/$5.95); and Rich & Tasty ($5.45/$6.45), which are more complex and tend to contain meat or seafood. I wasn't brave enough to try the Bollywood, a chicken curry mélange.
What isn't clear is if you can choose pasta shapes. Their packaging shows a variety of squiggles, decorative jars showcase diverse noodles, and their logo makes a smile out of a curved penne tube—but the default starch appears to be farfalle, perfectly al dente as advertised. I hit a language barrier (yes, some of the staff have been imported from France, as well) when I inquired about varieties, and was instead told that for a dollar more you can have multigrain. Good to know.
This messy peek inside the boxes reveals Bolo, a Bolognese and "4Magic," the magic being Parmesan, cheddar, Swiss, and American. This specific quartet probably wouldn't be my ideal picks—the cheeses on the French menu include stronger Gorgonzola and Roquefort—but the creamy sauce definitely satisfies any rich, salty mac and cheese-style cravings. From an American perspective, customers will probably expect more ground beef-studded Bolognese in proportion to the bow ties. We like our noodles swimming in sauce rather than the light application that's more traditional in Italy.
When your name is called at the counter, you can choose from a number of toppings like Parmesan, dried thyme or oregano to be sprinkled into your carton. I ended up with a heavy dose of chile flakes.
In Nooï's advertisements, healthful benefits are touted and regular exercise suggested. I was willing to give a pasta lunch a try—one can only eat so many midday salads, soups and sandwiches—but the 90-degree heat combined with cheesy carbs made me want to curl up and take a nap instead of heading back to the office. I'll probably feel more open to pasta post-heat wave.
What do you think? Are pick-and-mix pastas going to replace the salad bar? Three businesses are clearly hoping so.
370 Lexington Avenue, New York NY 10017 (map)