It’s been seven years since we were last at the Canton Orchard in Ranmoor, Sheffield, but I know exactly what owner Tsapman Li is going to say and he does.
“Let’s have a bottle of wine on me.”
No favours, please, we’re working but he can get me a China tea. A complimentary pot of Rosie Lee can’t really be misconstrued.
He takes no notice, producing a bottle of sauvignon blanc and three glasses, two for us and one for him. This is a man who famously likes to drink with his customers.
But I do get a pot of gunpowder tea and drink that until he dips a chopstick in a bottle and challenges me to taste the world’s hottest chilli, Ghost Chilli or Red Naga.
When I lick the stick I experience pain and a gulp of tea doesn’t assuage it. My tongue goes into the third glass of sauvignon for relief.
He’s on form tonight, running the restaurant, which is decorated in black, white and red, single-handed except for the chef.
“All my girls are doing their exams,” he explains. The waitresses here are university students.
He can’t ask his wife Giana since they agreed they would not work together after he threw an apple fritter at her in their last place. “Luckily it missed.”
That was a long time ago, at the Lotus House in Woodhouse. Come October the Canton Orchard will be 25 years old.
As he tells it, he opened in 1988 by subterfuge to avoid the inevitable kerfuffle in upmarket Ranmoor, claiming the three-storey Victorian villa “was going to be a French restaurant not Chinese.”
That quote has gone through the mangle of political correctness: Coming from the Manor, Tsapman was well aware of what people called Chinese then.
As I remember, it was a bit of a gastronomic stir. Sheffield had not seen anything quite like it for precision and flavour. But this was in the days of nouvelle cuisine and portions could be small. We found ourselves fighting over the carved radish garnish.
But we had not been served by Tsapman, who can tell you what to order and whether you are having too much. Like all the best places, the restaurant is the expression of the man himself.
Seven years ago there was more kerfuffle when he announced plans to replace the restaurant with a block of luxury retirement flats. That fell through. He loves the business. “I don’t want to retire. What would I do?” But we’ve noticed building work is about to start at the side.
It is, he says, for a cookery school and wine cellar for an export business to China.
Tsapman loves his wine. On TripAdvisor fans note his recommendations for Puligny-Montrachet, a classy Burgundy. But the Canton Orchard’s wine list also offers Blue Nun and Black Tower.
The menu itself, mostly Cantonese, doesn’t reflect any of the dishes you can find in the new Chinese restaurants along West Street serving the influx of Chinese students at the two universities. You won’t find roast bullfrog or man and wife tripe here.
“No way,” laughs Tsapman who, ironically, was in the very advance guard of Chinese students.
His father sent him to Sheffield from Hong Kong and he lodged on The Manor with his godmother who worked at the old Canary Chinese restaurant on Charles Street.
The Canton Orchard has the reputation of being upmarket and pricy. A bowl of prawn crackers, complimentary in most places, costs £2.50 but it did seven years ago. Still, choose carefully and you will be rewarded with some exciting tastes.
The quarter of crispy oriental duck (£12) as our starter comes already prepared and without the ‘theatre’ of being shredded at the table and was perhaps a little dry but what was to follow was superb.
The stir-fried fish with spring onion (£11) featured monkfish cheeks, a delicacy, like scampi but firmer, sweeter and meatier.
It tasted glorious but then so did the Szechuan-style eggplant (aubergine), crisp slices in a hot, sticky sauce with great depth of flavour, contrasting with the meatiness of the aubergine. We had a half portion for £4.25.
I’ve used ‘meaty’ twice for fish and vegetable but the third dish really was meat, sweet and sour pork (£8), but not as you will know it.
Forget the thick, Technicolor bright and sweet sauce which usually drapes the cubes of pork. Here it is thin, quite refined with a beautiful balance of sweet and sour. The pork is crisp but not chewy nor entirely fat: your teeth sink gently through.
This was great stuff apart from the egg-fried rice (a half portion at £1.25), again a little dry.
The wine ran out (my wife was drinking most of it). Champagne was poured. I kept on drinking tea.
The Canton Orchard has loyal customers who relish the food and the theatre provided by an oriental version of John Cleese who will turn off the music if requested.
But for the duck and rice this meal would have warranted five stars for food.
I asked him to include the wine but he wouldn’t. The bill came in Chinese and was indecipherable but the total was £37.50, which meant I paid for the tea. I wouldn’t want you to think I was influenced in any way.
Canton Orchard restaurant, 377 Fulwood Road, Ranmoor, Sheffield. Tel: 0114 263 0922. Open Mon-Sat 5-11pm. Music. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Enormous car park. Web: www.cantonorchard.co.uk