popular London Road restaurant the Noodle Inn has branched out and opened up a second restaurant in the city centre, no doubt keen for a share of the burgeoning Asian student market.
Judging by how busy Noodle Inn Centro was early on Saturday evening, it’s been a popular move to open up on Westfield Terrace, between West Street and Division Street.
The place, which opened at the end of last year, was thronging with young people. I thought we might be in for a wait but a waitress showed friend Sara and I straight to a tiny table for two, where we sat at right angles to each other.
There was a lively hubbub of conversation as we sat studying the giant menu, equipped with bottles of Tsing Tao beer and a basket of free prawn crackers (wine lovers are amply catered for with prices starting at around £11 a bottle, by the way).
Noodle Inn Centro has decided not to follow the current trend among new-style Chinese restaurants for clean minimalism and has gone quietly over the top with lovely gold wallpaper showing traditional Chinese scenes and the busiest-looking ceiling I’ve seen in a long time.
I’m only sorry I hadn’t realised about the glamorous garden out the back which, judging by pictures I spotted later online, looks a treat with giant parasols and fairy lights twinkling away.
However, it probably wasn’t too enticing on a cold January evening when the rain was lashing down.
Apparently 20 pages of dishes isn’t enough and here and there little notices written in a Chinese language, offering extras.
I had seen a separate vegetarian menu on the restaurant website and requested this for Sara, as she doesn’t eat meat and I wanted to know what she thought.
She said there’s an awful lot of tofu on offer as the menu tries to follow the same shape as the main one but she definitely liked not having to look through the main menu, trying to spot the little green Vs denoting vegetarian dishes.
The main menu offers starters and soups with prices from £2.80 to £12.50 (for half a crispy duck), big plate dishes of rice or noodles with toppings, soup-based big bowls and many mains.
Things get a bit more interesting when you come to wet and dry hot pots, traditional village-style dishes, spicy hot and cold Szechuan offerings and seafood and fish dishes. There’s also a choice of set meals, including one for children which sadly is chicken nuggets, chips and sweet and sour sauce.
Prices range from £6 to £16 but the big plates and big bowls offer the best value as there are no extras. However, this place is all about big portions.
For example, I went for a starter of salt and chilli chicken wings (£5.30) and was served what seemed to be the wings of an entire flock of chickens.
Sara went for an enoki mushroom starter and got a fairy glen’s worth of fungi for £4.30. You get the picture.
We were asked if we wanted our starters separately or with the main course and went for the first option.
There are chopsticks on the table but we also got a knife, fork and spoon.
I used my fingers to tackle the wonderfully crispy chicken wings with a perfectly cooked interior and a generous sprinkling of spicy diced onion, red and chillis and sesame seeds.
Sara enjoyed her first try of enoki mushrooms, which looked very delicate and long, were coated in a suitably light tempura batter and covered in an onion, sesame and chilli mixture.
I decided to ask our lovely, helpful waitress which hot pot dish I should go for. I’ve noticed that hot pots are very popular with Asian diners. She suggested mixed seafood in a wine and chilli sauce, so I went for that.
Sara really fancied a village-style aubergine dish but didn’t just want a plateful of one vegetable, so opted instead for a big dish of vermicelli noodles cooked Singapore style (£7). There are lots of other noodle options, including ramen, udon, rice thread and sweet potato.
We had been waiting a few minutes when our waitress returned, very angry with the kitchen as it had only just told her that the wine and chilli sauce for my hot pot had run out. My second choice was beef in satay sauce with sweet potato noodles (£8).
I was worried that Sara’s food would be ready and we would have to wait for mine but my dish arrived first, along with my steamed rice (£1.80).
The hot pot was a substantial dish with thinly-sliced, well cooked beef in a slightly spicy sauce and tiny pieces of vegetables and something sweet that might have been pineapple. The noodles were at the bottom and were very fine.
It was an enjoyable, warming dish, if not spectacular. The rice was lovely.
Sara’s vermicelli mountain looked pretty as it was dotted with brightly-coloured diced vegetables including broccoli, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and carrots, plus egg.
She said that the vermicelli made it light to eat but when I tried some I concurred that the turmeric-heavy curry-style flavouring was a little harsh.
We were so stuffed we couldn’t even face ‘blooming tea’ or coffee, let alone green tea-flavoured ice cream.
We were offered takeaway cartons to carry off the hefty leftovers.
Our bill came to £32.
Verdict: pretty good food and plenty of it in a friendly, lively atmosphere.
Noodle Inn Centro, Westfield Terrace. 0114 270 0735. http://www.noodleinncentro.co.uk
Open seven days a week, 11am to 10pm.