The Chinese have not been very nice to me. According to their methphor-heavy zodiac system, I was born in the Year of the Ox, which appears to make me one of the most boring people on the planet. I suppose I can just about live with the backhanded-compliment oxen attributes of ‘simple’, ‘conservative’ and ‘loyal’ that I found on one website; but as a lifelong lover of language, I’m spitting feathers at the revelation that I’m ‘inarticulate’.
And for an aspiring restaurant-reviewer, the ox-personality menu card doesn’t get any more digestible as you work your way down it. With my stick-in-the-mud ways, I’m apparently something of a nay-sayer when it comes to innovation. I’m also ‘prudish’ – a distinct disadvantage when you consider that habitual to the commentary of many of our most respected food critics is the implicit – or sometimes explicit – association of a relish for the pleasures of the table with a corresponding gusto for…others of life’s earthier diversions.
So you might conclude that sour grapes are at the root of what I have to say about Jimbo Chinese Express. Not so. I try to be open-minded about the places I visit, and as Jimbo usually looks pretty busy – and not just with South East Asian students either – when I amble past it, I decided it was time to get in on the secret myself.
In some ways, it’s unfair to compare Jimbo to a fully-fledged restaurant. Its proximity to the university (although these days, almost everything in the city centre could be said to benefit from ‘proximity to the university’), its bargain prices and indeed its whole business ethos (plastic trays, servery-style set-up, basic décor) proclaim it to be as much a works-canteen for between-lectures students as a rewarding dining experience for those with leisure to linger.
On the other hand, none of that should necessarily mean it can’t serve decent food. If rule number one of restaurant reviewing is that environmental plushness doesn’t automatically correlate with culinary excellence, the reverse should also be true. So yeah, I was hopeful. But unfortunately those hopes were fated, yet again, to be utterly dashed as soon as they collided with reality.
So look, I don’t mind eating off a plastic tray. As it happens, I’ve eaten some very good food off a plastic tray. It wasn’t the plastic tray I objected to. What I objected to was the way the three components of my ‘medium box’, when ladled over their bed of rice noodles, looked – minus the meat – like what would happen if you randomly scraped your rapidly-cooling Sunday lunch off your plate and into a Tupperware container. (All right, I don’t know why you’d do that either. Just suppose you did, OK? The point I’m trying to make is: NOT VERY APPETISING).
The three vegetarian options for the medium box were ‘aubergine, peppers and potato’, ‘egg and tomato’ and ‘fried mixed vegetables’. I’ve no idea if these vary from day to day, but on the evening I visited, they all seemed to be suffering from a single problem – which was that they were far, far too sloppy.
Even at the servery, the fried mixed vegetables were swimming in a weird milky-looking liquid that seemed totally at odds with what we know of the stir-frying process. The egg and tomato was also slick with extruded water. The aubergine, pepper and potato was the best of the bunch – the aubergine was actually quite unctuous – but the inclusion of an object that appeared to hail from the dodgy back alleys of the roast potato road map was disconcerting and added to the Sunday-lunch slops feel. Even with a big leavening of soy sauce, nothing seemed to have much flavour – except the rice noodles, which tasted oddly perfumed.
Happily, the Chinese horoscope is predicting excellent luck for those of the ox persuasion in the recently-inaugurated Year of the Rooster. For a bovine, bone-headed oxy-lady like myself, I’m not entirely sure what excellent luck would look like. In food terms, it possibly involves eating the same boring, tasteless stuff every single day with ne’er the faintest whiff of anything even mildly exciting. Got off to a good start then.
Jimbo Chinese Express, 26-27 Earl Street, Coventry CV1 5RU (website under construction). Medium box £5.50.