The Virgin & The Veteran

11 February 2008

Alba Ziegler-Bailey takes Alex Hall out to the Jinling Noodle Bar for his first Chinese experience

My suggestion to my better half that we go out for a Chinese last week was met with a noncommittal grunt. This being an even more laconic response than usual, I asked again, determined to get us some pan-Asian cuisine before the evening was out. After some interrogation, I discovered the jaw-dropping truth; I was going out with someone who had never been to a Chinese restaurant.

Big deal, I hear you say. Well, yes, to me it was big. Having spent many a happy evening eating noodly concoctions that you just know no one has ever heard of in China, I was determined to remove his unfortunate Chinese-restaurant virginity there and then. My criteria for the perfect Chinese are as follows: The meal should include plenty of noodles or rice—carbs are essential. The food should be good value. The tablecloths should be those lino ones, so it doesn’t matter if you accidentally spatter. Most importantly, the food should be hot enough that you still feel it the next morning. I outlined these to my companion as we headed to the Jinling Noodle Bar on Peas Hill.

He said I had thought about this far too much. The restaurant is in an old building behind the Corn Exchange. It’s simply decorated, and I ticked the lino tablecloths off my mental list as we entered—I could splash away in peace. We were handed the usual Victorian novel-length menus and I asked for some tea, which was excellent value at £1.00 per head. The virgin had a Tiger beer, which was also very reasonably priced. To start we shared some spring rolls (essential, especially if you’ve never had them before) and deep-fried squid with chilli.

The spring rolls were lovely and crispy and contained a particularly delicious deep-green succulent seaweed. The squid was perfectly chewy and salty, with a satisfyingly hot chilli sauce. The waiter refi lled the teapot without my having to ask, which I found refreshing. Unfortunately, the main course failed to live up to the promise of our starters. The virgin ordered udon noodle soup with vegetables, which turned out to be carrots and pak choi swimming in a gelatinous mass. With noodles. The vegetables, at least, were done well—cooked just enough that they still had some bite. I, the brave veteran, ordered a beef dish with noodles and vegetables. Again, the pak choi was excellent, but the beef was cheap and not cooked interestingly enough to cover up this fact. My meal came with the same glutinous substance as the vegetable dish, only mine tasted vaguely of beef stock. I slathered it in chilli sauce, which improved matters drastically, but the course was, overall, disappointing. I’d happily eat a meal of several starters at the Jinling Noodle Bar, a strategy which would save money, and also allow one to eat the best things on the menu, and meet my minimum criteria for the perfect Chinese meal.