Movable Feast: Bubble Lounge

We at the Current have yet to be convinced about bubble tea. Call us unadventurous but the thought of sucking up gelatinous tapioca balls through an oversized straw somehow fails to appeal.

We’re pretty sure we’re in the minority, though, since Sansom Street’s Bubble House has become a true campus success story. The brainchild of Wharton grads, the teahouse and Pan Asian restaurant this month expanded operations, opening Bubble Lounge in the next-door space that used to house Paper Garden.

At the bar

The new bar area is elegant and spare, with shoji screened booths and walls sheathed in tatami-like reed matting. Blond wood floors and wicker furniture arranged around a brick clad fireplace make for a peaceful, welcoming ambiance, and the bar itself provides a serene alternative to the rowdier pleasures of White Dog or New Deck.

What’s on tap is a change of pace, too. During our visit, Bubble Lounge had only a handful of beers of tap—a couple standard American brews, along with Japanese stalwart Kirin and a seasonal from Paulaner. That’s because the owners are intent on carving out their own niche in the neighborhood—and that would be sake. For those who don’t know, sake is a traditional Asian alcohol fermented from rice. Though grain-based, like beer, it’s not carbonated and its taste falls somewhere between wine and liquor.

With an alcohol content ranging from 15 to 17 percent, it’s a potent drink, and in most varieties, the alcohol taste is quite forward. But Bubble Lounge seems intent on educating us all about the differences in the many types of sake. The bar menu includes several sakes, ranging in price from about $4 a glass to more than $50 a bottle. You’re likely to have questions, but no worries: The bar staff, knowledgeable and attentive, can guide you to the right choice.

Traditional favorites

If you’re hungry, you can savor Bubble House’s signature Asian dishes—and, of course, a tall cold glass of bubble tea—in both the original restaurant and the lounge. If you come here expecting the robust, spicy flavors of your favorite Chinatown restaurant you may be in for a disappointment. Though the menu brims with miso, lemongrass, sesame and soy, many of the dishes—including the Pan Fried Egg Noodles and Asian Pesto Soba Noodle Salad—are on the timid side, Asian-inflected at most.

Still, we have a few favorites here that, along with the always-friendly service, make lunch here a reliable treat. We especially like Bibim Bap, the Bubble House’s take on a traditional Korean dish, with grilled, marinated chicken or shrimp on a bed of lettuce, basil and mint served over rice with a lively sesame lemon vinaigrette.

Originally published on November 17, 2005