Islington isn’t the first place in London you’d think to go to for Chinese food, but it’s home to a branch of New Culture Revolution, a small chain of restaurants focussing on dishes from northern China. Based on an initial recommendation from the Jolly Giant, I’ve been to the Islington branch several times now, but my experiences have been decidedly mixed.
The Islington branch is has a minimalist look with wooden floors and white walls decorated with a scattering of mounted glass plates inscribed with quotes from Chinese philosophers and writers. The service has always been very friendly and efficient – on one visit, a waitress accidentally knocked over my drink but only did she replace it free of charge, but also offered me a free meal on my next visit! The premises is split between a ground floor and a mezzanine level, which means there is sometimes an occasional delay in flagging down a server.
The menu contains some of the usual anglicised, high-street favourites such as fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. Potentially more interesting was the prawn and asparagus spring rolls, but the deep frying obliterated much of the asparagus’ flavour making this dish a disappointment (sorry folks, no photo).
A slightly more successful starter was the chilli squid. Priced at a bargain £5.50, the squid was unsurprisingly frozen and not fresh nor was it especially spicy. The sweet chilli dipping sauce was too sugary for my taste but the slightly salty, fluffy batter was quite pleasing.
What dominates the menu at New Culture Revolution however are the noodles and the dumplings. On previous visits I’ve been impressed with the tasty steamed dumplings in broth, but the quality of the pork dumplings on my last visit left much to be desired.
The dumplings’ skin was thick and smooth with only a few wrinkles, but the meat inside was flavourless. The broth itself was so tasteless it might as well have been boiled water, but at least the vegetables scattered over the top of the dumplings themselves were fresh and crunchy.
I’ve enjoyed the Sichuan braised beef Lao Mein noodle soup on previous visits with its tender slices of beef and the tasty broth with its layers of subtle spiciness and tangy bean-like flavour. On my most recent visit I decided to try something else, the Hot and Sour Seafood Lao Mein. I wish I hadn’t.
The noodles themselves are the same thick and hearty wheat noodles used in many of New Culture Revolution’s other noodle dishes. Surprisingly, the hot and sour sauce resembled tom yam kung, the popular spicy, sour, citrus and prawn flavoured soup from Thailand. The sauce here was a reasonable, if rather thick and starchy imitation that worked well enough with the prawns, occasional mussel and slices of rather bland fishcake. But it just didn’t complement the thick, hearty noodles.
Although slightly pricy at £3 per glass, I’m quite fond of the freshly made-to-order fruit and vegetable juices such as carrot, apple or, if you’re daring, carrot and apple.
If I had written this review a year ago, or even a few months ago, I suspect it would have been more positive. Although the service is as friendly as ever and the dishes are inexpensive, the quality of the food isn’t as consistently good as it once was, which makes finding something good from the menu hit-and-miss. If I find myself in Islington and have a hankering for Chinese, I’d still rather go here than the local branch of Wagamama’s. But unless New Culture Revolution improves, I’m even more likely to just head down to Chinatown. Two stars.
Name: New Culture Revolution
Address: 42 Duncan Street, London, N1 8BL
Phone: 020 7833 9803
Opening Hours: everyday, 18:00 – 22:30
Reservations: Yeah, if you want.
Total cost for one person including a non-alcoholic drink: £20
Updated 20/2/2011 – new star rating graphic added