Don’t panic! It’s always good advice when confronted with a menu problem in a restaurant and we’ve got one at China Red.
Strange dishes swim before our eyes – fried pig’s intestines in spicy sauce, stir-fried pig’s feet with sourly sauce, frog’s legs in barbecue sauce, tripe done any way you want and some you’ve never thought of – and we’re finding it hard to make head or tail of it.
Come to think, there’s probably a head and a tail being cooked right now in the kitchen.
For China Red is aimed exclusively at the Chinese market, all those students at the two universities. It takes no prisoners as far as Europeans are concerned. My wife is convinced she saw testicles on the menu.
We walk in from Rockingham Gate into a very red room full of young Chinese eating in groups. We’re the only English people.
After being shown a table and handed menus in Chinese with brief English descriptions we’re left alone, not asked if we want a drink.
The menu is not divided into starters and mains or any way we can comprehend so perhaps they imagine we’re going to cut and run but your intrepid gastronauts are made of sterner stuff.
The demolition of parts of The Moor has opened up new vistas, amongst them the striking façade of China Red.
For years this place, once the Top Wok, has been hidden away. You could catch a glimpse if you walked up The Moor but otherwise you wouldn’t know it was there.
You can’t miss it now, particularly at night as it blazes with red neon, the Chinese lucky colour. But would it be lucky for us to try a meal there?
Normally, I like to do a bit of research first but I drew a blank. There is no menu on display, nor a website and TripAdvisor is silent.
China Red is owned by Martin Ng who also runs the Wong Ting (previously the Golden Dragon) and the Man Ting Hong hot pot restaurant, where you cook your own food in pots of boiling broth, on nearby Matilda Street.
Actually this place is a doddle compared to Man Ting Hong because when we went they hadn’t got around to an English menu.
Then we were rescued by a waitress called Elaine’s instant translation service. Here, after they realise we’re not going to scuttle out, we are rescued by a waiter with asymmetric hair who looks like he comes from a boy band, a sort of Chinese Harry Styles.
After establishing that we know this is a Szechuan restaurant where things can get hot (dishes are marked with one, two or three red chillis) and are going to stay, Harry helps out. I knew authentic Chinese meals don’t have starters, mains and desserts but are eaten communally with everything served at once with people dipping in.
But I hadn’t realised one of the sections from which we’d already selected sliced pork with garlic sauce was for cold dishes. We didn’t want to be that authentic.
A starter? He suggested stir-fried shredded pork with pancakes. A bit like crispy aromatic duck? He nodded. It wasn’t but we ordered it. It’s £10.50 and pricy but we were sharing it.
To follow we had stir-fried squid with cashew nuts (£8.50), spare ribs with minced garlic and spicy salt (£10.50), braised aubergine (£8.40) and egg-fried rice (£2.20) of which, through an error in international understanding, we got double portions. Here I should point out that if you visit, which I recommend, go with another couple, because while our bill will seem expensive portions are so big they would have served four.
In fact, when we saw it all spread before us my wife says: “Before we start, let’s make a pact. We are not going to try and finish it.”
When the shredded pork arrived I thought of Clement Freud, the late Liberal MP. Older readers will remember his commercial for Minced Morsels dog food. A big plate was heaped full of squiggly bits of meat just like them.
They didn’t taste like Minced Morsels. I have written down the words ‘tender,’ ‘juicy’ and ‘porky’ in my notebook and they were mixed with beansprouts and drenched in soy sauce. You roll them up in the pancakes like duck without the hoisin, spring onion and cucumber.
Harry drifted over to see how we were getting on. I was tempted to go ‘woof!’ but guessed he would miss the joke. The squid was plentiful, accurately cooked and tasty, its softness contrasting with the cashew crunch. There was chilli heat but it crept up gradually as it did with the braised aubergines.
Again, it was another big portion with the vegetable cut into small wedges with the cooking bringing out a pleasing sweetness.
The ribs came dry. They had plenty of meat and were studded with chopped garlic and salt. It’s not a sophisticated dish but it is a gutsy one, which is just what you want.
We’d enjoyed it all although I suspect the kitchen toned down the heat for us.
Manager Kelvin Quick, who runs all three eateries for Martin, says most customers are Chinese so the place goes quiet when students go home. My suggestion is that without compromising the cooking the restaurant gets a website and makes its menu a little more comprehensible. That might fill the seats in slacker times.
We paid £42.50 for food which would have fed four.
China Red, 3 Rockingham Gate, Sheffield S1 4JD. Tel: 0114 272 1322. Open all week 4pm-12am. Licensed. Vegetarian meals. Music. Disabled access (upstairs toilets). Credit card machine not working on our visit. Street parking.