As far as Asian canteen-style restaurants in Oxford go, Red Star falls somewhere in between the tamely homogeneous Noodle Nation and the bijou charm of Edamamé: you don't make up your meal by numbers, choosing a type of noodles and then an accompanying sauce, but it's not a place to go for fresh sushi and daily-changing specials either. Situated as it is deep in student-land on the Cowley Road, Red Star seems to be full most evenings, with would-be diners crammed into the tiny waiting area at the front of the restaurant (beware the draught from the constantly opening door).
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere was brisk. The servers were more concerned with getting on with their job than making conversation; even though I was part of a large group, the food arrived at a startling speed, and more or less all at the same time (take note, Wagamama). This was clearly the result of some quick work by the chefs and not because it had been made in advance and warmed up, which was impressive given that the extensive paper menu is supplemented by several blackboards' worth of semi-permanent 'specials'. Over-long menus that make a kitchen become all things to all people with less than consistent results are becoming a bit of a bugbear of mine, but here it seems to work. Red Star offers an array of eastern cuisine, most of which you'll have probably seen elsewhere: I recognised Japanese and Korean as well as more generic 'Chinese' dishes. It's all based around noodles or rice with protein and there's very little that western palates will find outlandish. Still, the specially spicy chilli ramen is worth mentioning (if you finish it within half an hour you can have your photo pinned to the wall).
Those are the limits of what's on offer here. However, what Red Star does, it does well. As my group was far too big for a meaningful review of what everyone had, I'll focus on a few dishes in particular. With regard to side orders, Japanese dumplings - gyozas - (£3.30) and vegetable spring rolls (£2.20) were impressive. I can't say whether they were newly made or defrosted but the spring rolls had a really fresh-tasting filling and came with a moreish tangy sauce; the gyozas got the contrast between elastic skin and savoury minced pork filling exactly right. Miso soup (£1.70), on the other hand, was over-salted.
A couple of people enjoyed their yaki soba (stir fried ramen noodles with various vegetables, egg, chicken, shrimps, peppers and sesame seeds; £5.50) so much that, despairing of their chopsticks, they resorted to direct mouth-plate contact in order not to miss the last traces. I wasn't quite inclined to do the same with my stir fried tofu with asparagus and baby sweetcorn (£5.80; it came with rice and miso soup), but it was nonetheless delicious. I know that 'silky' is an adjective over-used when describing tofu but this was the first time that I've actually liked coagulated soy milk. It nicely took on the flavour of the sauce, which was glutinous but light, rather than sickly, and subtly enhanced by the addition of what I thought was finely chopped onion but couldn't be sure. I enjoyed finishing it off with the remaining rice. All this was counterbalanced by the vegetables, which had kept their crispness well.
Chicken katsu curry (£6.50) was not an especially attractive plateful, with knarled pieces of breaded chicken and rice covered in a shiny brown sauce, and with a small pile of standard lettuce and tomato on the side. The photo is even worse, so I'll withold it, but the food belied its appearance. The chicken was tender, almost succulent, and worked well with its pleasingly dry breadcrumb coating. In turn the dryness was neutralised by the curry sauce, which had what I thought was a nice little kick, although someone with more of a stomach for hot food than me was disappointed. The vegetarian counterpart of this dish, yasai katsu curry (deep fried aubergines, mushrooms, courgettes and sweet potatoes in the same curry sauce; £5.50), was also a fine if rather unhealthy (and slightly oily) combination of flavours.
So dinner at Red Star was generally enjoyable (even if it was also over rather soon, for the reasons mentioned earlier), and certainly good value. This is probably one of the few places in Oxford where you can eat well and leave replete for £5 or slightly more; the quality is not Michelin-star (of course!) but very adequate for what you're paying. I'd be keen to come back and try some more of the hundred-odd dishes on offer, especially the ramens that appear to be something of a speciality. What I won't be eating is the bowl of chips that I glimpsed someone tucking into as we left. I checked the menu afterwards and yes, the sole western item to be seen was chilli and garlic chips. I'm sure they were tasty, and maybe the person I saw had a good reason for ordering them, but it still looked as if they were missing the point of Red Star.
187 Cowley Road, OX4 1UT