A confession: this is not my first visit to Noodle Bar. I came here several years ago, with my husband, when he was doing his MSc at Cov Uni. He’d made friends with a Vietnamese student, who recommended it as the place where all the South-East Asian students ate. Barry took that as a sign it must be authentic, and suggested we try it.
We made the mistake of ordering starters, I remember. By the time our main courses arrived, we were so stuffed we could barely bring ourselves to even pick at them. Not being an authority on Chinese cuisine, I can’t really comment on the authenticity angle; but to be honest, I suspect the reason for Noodle Bar’s popularity might just as easily be that South-East Asian students know a bargain when they see one. Because for the price, the portion sizes here are huge.
We’re not talking feyn deyning then. Tables in the upstairs seating area (there’s also a smaller one at street level) are closely packed, and the walls, covered in anaglypta and painted in whatever random colours were left behind in the garage it looks like, put me in mind of a squatted house from the hippy era. From across a dado-rail, bright orange and yellow are engaged in a mutinous face-off. From above, a thunderous maroon ceiling referees.
Down on the tables meanwhile, the crockery, oblivious to the visual violence that surrounds it, is all tinkly porcelain and pretty flowers. It’s an echo, I suppose, of the stiff, slightly chintzy interior décor you glimpse on TV when some visiting grand fromage is welcomed to China; but to western eyes, it’s not a contemporary look. The huge ten-sided bowl in which much of the food (including mine) is served would not look out-of-place on a Victorian side table, disguising from corruptible minds the unspeakable vulgarity of the terra cotta flower pot that is the aspidistra’s true home.
Portion size, as I’ve said, matches tableware size. It’s perhaps not the best sign, when your meal is placed before you, that your first thought is not ‘this looks delicious, I can’t wait to eat it’ but ‘this looks enormous, I wonder if I can finish it?!’. It might explain, though, why one of the waiters helpfully tried to clear away my tofu and aubergine in black bean sauce before I was ready. With this much food, uncleared plates are possibly the norm.
To leave it half-eaten would, however, have been poor justice for a perfectly decent dish. The sauce, tasting mostly of shoyu, lacked complexity, but was quite acceptable; and paired as it was with black beans, it also did well to avoid over-saltiness. The tofu was succulent and plentiful, and amongst the vegetables, I’d single out the onion, usually a background character, for retaining a flavour that was deeply…onion-y. The aubergine alone was a sadly neutered beast. Denied by some unsympathetic cooking process (steaming?) its unctuous, ballsy birthright, here it was little more than an anonymous grey slither.
Combined with anxiety about not finishing my meal, the brisk and highly efficient service meant I couldn’t describe eating at Noodle Bar as a relaxing experience. It’s an independent, but it’s sure-as-hell working that high-volume, fast-turnaround model. Despite that – or perhaps because of it – this is definitely the best value eatery I’ve found in Coventry city centre. For myself, I might have been prepared to sacrifice some of the quantity for a few more interesting flavours, but all that proves is what an out-of-touch, middle-class, Remain-voting snob I am.
Because patently, Noodle Bar is doing something right. Alone amongst the Oriental restaurants I’ve sampled, this was not just busy – even at the slightly unlikely hour dining hour of half-past-two on a Long Vac afternoon – but also reaching beyond its immediate target audience: diners were evenly split between South East Asian and non-South East Asian. Some might roll their eyes that they’ve achieved this via a Man v Food ethic, but with their almost self-parodying good value, maybe what they’ve actually created is a kind of latter-day Coventry legend that everyone needs to try at least once. I loosen my belt to them.
Noodle Bar, 9 Bull Yard, Coventry CV1 1LH (no website that I can find). Tofu and aubergine in black bean sauce with a choice of rice or noodles, £6.60