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Noodles & Company
** 1/2
Out of a possible five

Use your noodle: Mac ’n’ cheese a palate-pleaser

Fast-casual is the fastest-growing restaurant style in America, and with good reason.

Customers can get food a step above fast food just as fast, can often choose their ingredients and then can enjoy that food in a slick, modern space that is also way above what most fast-food chains offer.

It works fantastically for burritos, tacos and submarine sandwiches, so why not noodles?

Noodles & Company, the newest fast-casual chain to hit Fort Wayne, does offer a lot of noodles, but I was surprised that there was so much company on the menu. It offers wraps, sandwiches, salads, soups and flatbreads in addition to noodles of all sorts, from simple buttered noodles to Thai curry.

And although that might sound great, it is actually what I liked least about the restaurant, which is along Illinois Road in front of the Orchard Crossing shopping center.

Because it is supposed to be fast – and there were lines there during both of my visits – it was intimidating trying to decide what to order. At the burrito and sandwich chains, the menus are much more streamlined, which makes it less intimidating and it ensures the finished products are going to be consistent.

Noodles & Company could learn a lesson and streamline, too.

The restaurant’s signature offering was, indeed, worth its signature status. The Truffle Mac had a nice mix of cheeses; a bright yellow, creamy nacho-style processed sauce mixed in the noodles and a healthy dose of shredded Parmesan on top, along with shaved portobello mushrooms and breadcrumbs. The sauce was infused with white truffle oil to give it an added level of indulgence.

It was easily the best thing I had there and very crave-worthy, with the mushrooms and oil giving it an earthy goodness to go with its cheesiness.

I also enjoyed the Steak Stroganoff. The steak was decently tender, and its mushroom sherry cream sauce and fat egg noodles made it real familiar, like something I have had at a relative’s house. It had a little black pepper, which was nice, but I did not detect much of the fresh herbs its menu description boasted.

The chicken noodle soup was OK, but the soup with no noodles – tomato-basil bisque – was much better. It was a little sweet, creamy and bursting with tomato flavor. It would have been great as a sauce over some of those noodles, much better than the bland red sauce on Noodles & Company’s spaghetti and meatballs.

The Pesto Cavatappi was a good choice, as its basil pesto was bright but not overpowering. It also clung nicely to the thick, curly noodles. With pieces of tender, flavorful chicken breast, mushrooms, tomatoes, Parmesan and a wine-infused cream sauce, it had a lot of flavors and those flavors worked.

When it came to the Asian-inspired part of the menu, it was hit-and-miss.

The hits:

•The chicken pot stickers were nicely pan-fried on one side and steamed on the other, and the meat inside was moist and nicely seasoned.

•The Indonesian Peanut Sauté was packed with vegetables – broccoli, cabbage, carrots and sprouts – and also had a touch of cilantro, crushed peanuts and a lime on the side. Its stir-fried rice noodles were coated in a spicy peanut sauce that had the right southeast-Asian flavor. It was filling and delicious.

And the miss:

•The Thai Curry Soup was bland and, more glaring at a place with it as part of its name, lacked noodles. The murky, yellow coconut-curry broth, like the Indonesian noodles, had the right flavor profile, and it did have a decent array of vegetables – spinach, purple cabbage, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions.

But, unlike the Indonesian dish, it did not have the fresh lime, which is a must to garnish a good curry soup, and it really lacked heat.

The Med, a flatbread sandwich, was decent, with tender chicken breast, mushrooms, spinach, red peppers, cucumber, onions, feta and cilantro with a zesty Mediterranean dressing.

I just don’t know why it was on the menu. Places that specialize in sandwiches do better versions, and I would never go to a place called Noodles & Company for flatbread.

Another flatbread creation – and a salad – were not even up to what I might get at a hospital cafeteria.

The seasonal special Springtime Flatbread looked inviting, with asparagus, mushrooms, Parmesan and bacon, but there was very little asparagus – or any other toppings for that matter – to make it worth having.

The Spinach and Fresh Fruit Salad, a menu staple with varying fruit depending on the season, looked great on the menu board but was dreadful.

The spinach was fresh, the balsamic fig dressing was tasty and there were plenty of croutons, bacon and bleu cheese crumbles. But even though the photos were bursting with fruit, mine had just five small diced bits of apple in it.

The service at Noodles & Company was so-so. I was rushed through the order line during both visits, and the employees working the registers offered little help in terms of suggesting anything, including the seasonal features.

It has the right atmosphere – sleek and new – but there was one glaring problem. Noodles & Company has one of those fancy soft-drink dispensers that allows you to create a seamlessly endless combination of drinks. I love them – try the Schweppes’ ginger ale with vanilla and cherry, trust me – but it was awkwardly placed in a side room that got badly backed up.

Even the members of my party who just wanted water were stuck waiting because that machine was the only place they could get it. A second drink machine, or at the very least a separate water dispenser, is needed.

Overall, Noodles & Company suffered from its lack of focus. There were just too many dishes to choose from and too few that were memorable enough for me to go back for.

Unless, of course, I am in the mood for some mushroom-laden, truffle-infused cheesy mac and cheese.

Restaurant: Noodles & Company

Address: 4602 Illinois Road

Phone: 436-0091

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Fusion

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Flatbread ($2.99), potstickers ($4.99), bisque ($5.49), Indonesian noodles ($5.49), Thai soup ($5.49), stroganoff ($5.40), penne ($5.49), fruit salad ($7.79), cavatappi ($5.49), mac and cheese ($6.95), The Med ($5.99)

Rating breakdown: Food: * (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.