In the middle of the Green Street metropolis of casual eateries, smoke shops, and boba tea, there’s a new Chinese restaurant called Northern Cuisine. Opened in the space where Bobo China was for two decades, Northern Cuisine restaurant offers upscale Chinese food in a sleek, newly renovated space.
I’d been watching and waiting for the restaurant to open, and on a rainy Thursday, I met up with a foodie friend for lunch at Northern Cuisine. Born and raised Beijing, she was curious to try the food here, too.
Inside the restaurant, Chinese music played softly in the dining room. At every table, each seat was set with a plate, napkin, and chopsticks. The handsome chairs, dim lighting, and warm woods made it feel a little swanky. For a campus eatery, the ambiance was impressive — and prices reflect that. Most dishes range from $15-$30, but dishes here are meant to be shared.
Our server quickly brought us water and gave us time to peruse the menu. Northern Cuisine has a fancy menu, a cloth portfolio of thick paper, bound with red string. I’ve seen Champaign-Urbana restaurants with QR codes, sticky laminated ones, regular paper, but no restaurant with a menu this snazzy. Which is why I was surprised that our waters came in plastic cups. While it would be fine for takeout, the cheap cup didn’t fit among all the other posh details.
Though I suggested a scallion pancake as an appetizer, my friend said we should order a vegetable, and so I ordered the celtuce salad ($9.95). That’s not spelled incorrectly; the vegetable is a hybrid of celery and lettuce. The celtuce salad’s bright green color was stunning. It was my first time trying celtuce, and I liked it. Sliced almost translucent, the celtuce tasted mild, not really bitter, kind of what I’d expect from celery-meets-lettuce. The simple veg took on nuttiness from the sesame oil and strong flavor of the freshly-minced garlic. The bite-sized pieces were easy to grab. A nibble of cool celtuce was a great hiatus from the savory dishes, offering distinctively different temperature and texture.
Deep-fried bacon lovers, pay attention. When I saw this dish on the menu, I was in. Battered, fried pork belly tossed in a sweet sauce? Yes, that is a very good thing. I ordered the B1 crispy pork in a sweet-and-sour glaze ($19.95). I am never not ordering this when I’m at Northern Cuisine. This dish was absolutely delicious. Thick slices of pork belly were battered, deep-fried, and then drizzled with a from-scratch syrup. Because they hand-batter the pork belly to order, this dish took the longest. The pork was scaldingly hot from the fryer, but we still ate it immediately. The breading served a crispy bacon texture with a sugar-soaked crust, and it was salty-sweet perfection.
Does anyone remember Destihl’s deep-fried battered bacon with a maple-chipotle glaze? This was like that but (dare I say) better. It was everything: hot, crunchy, salty, sweet. And the small triangles of pork belly were way more manageable than long strips of bacon. This crispy, sweet-and-sour pork was my favorite bite of lunch — and now one of my favorite dishes in Campustown.
I also ordered this spicy fatty beef dry pot ($20.95), which had beef, onions, potatoes, celery, and lotus root in a spicy sauce served with steamed white rice. This was an intensely flavorful dish due to the Szechuan pepper, which gave every bite a numbing, tingly spiciness. Paired with the dish’s hot red peppers, this dish was pretty spicy, but it was a smooth, smoldering heat that was warm and continuous rather than stinging. Thinly-sliced with ribbons of rendered fat, the beef was tender and delicious. I liked the pretty cuts on vegetables: celery on the diagonal and ridge-cut potatoes.
Those potato discs tasted amazing, buttery soft like scalloped potatoes yet still slightly crisp. The onions and lotus root took to the spiciness well while crisp celery cut through the peppers. It was my first time trying lotus root; it was crunchy and tasted like a radish to me but with a hole-y Swiss-cheese look.
When she saw it on the menu, my friend was adamant that we order her favorite street food from Northern China, so we also ordered the fried dough stick ($3.95). It came as two sticks of fried dough that were easy to tear apart. My friend loved it, and I thought it was good, too. I was expecting some sweetness, but it literally was just fried dough. No cinnamon sugar like a churro, just airy bread with a crinkly exterior and a savory, oily flavor. For me, a few bites was enough, but my friend gladly ate the rest of mine when she finished hers.
A lot of times with Chinese food, I’m going for takeout, satisfying food I can eat in my basement watching tv, but Northern Cuisine restaurant is two or three levels up. I’m sure the takeout is excellent, but this is the kind of place for sit-down Chinese food.
Overall, my lunch at Northern Cuisine was delicious. Since it has servers who bring food, refill drinks, and clear plates, it’s kind of a fancy spot especially in the sea of Green Street’s casual restaurants. But the restaurant serves food almost as quick as them. Our dishes came out fairly fast; the beef, salad, and dough sticks all took ten minutes, and the pork dish took just under 20.
There seems to be a real chef in the kitchen making dishes from scratch, taking care to slice vegetables in a pretty way and batter fried foods to order. Even the chopsticks are nice — so nice that it took me
seven a few tries to open the deluxe paper wrapper; look for the tear line. Also, there are two entrances, but don’t use the one with the stairs, enter through the door farther from Fourth Street.
In terms of other menu items, Northern Cuisine offers breaded tilapia, fried crispy prawns, wok-fried vegetables, braised pork belly with tofu puff, and braised beltfish in a savory sauce. There’s homestyle stir-fry with kung pao chicken, dry chili chicken, celery and cashew chicken, beef in a black pepper sauce, wok-fried pork, wok-fried clams, intestines dishes, fried beef tongue with tea tree mushroom, and wok-fried lamb neck bone with cumin, too. When I go next, I want the crispy pork, of course, and maybe try the dumplings or spicy chicken wings.
Northern Cuisine restaurant
404 E Green St
Tu-Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.