WHILE the restaurant trade struggles to keep its head above water with special offers and cut-price menus, one sector of the business is doing very nicely thank you: the Chinese.
There are some 7,000 students from mainland China in the city, most flush with money thanks to a favourable exchange rate, and they have to eat. This is revitalising Chinese restaurants and encouraging others to spring up.
A few weeks ago I reported on the Mandar-Inn on London Road, with a radically new menu compared to what we have been used to. Now there’s another, the Orient Express on Glossop Road.
Ask bosses Kevin and Yedda Fung why they knocked on the door of what was K-Pasa and invited them to sell and they give the answer in two words: “the students.”
Indeed, most of the diners in the smart 60-cover eaterie were young Chinese but, as elsewhere, I notice they eat early and the later clientele is European. The students are off to swot, I suppose.
Apart from a Chinese mural on the end wall of this distinctive building – which features splendid curved windows – there is little Chinese décor. Walls are in bold, striking colours, chiefly red and white, while fleecy white clouds scud over a painted blue ceiling.
It’s a hangover from the previous owners and I gather the Fung family are fiercely divided whether to keep it. If they ask me, it stays!
The Orient Express may be the newest kid on the blog but its roots go right back.
The family had the Golden Dragon (now Wong Ting) on Matilda Street for 40 years and before that the Golden Tiger on London Road.
They can lay claim to opening the city’s first Chinese restaurant – café, really – after the First World War when a great grand daddy married an English girl and opened up the front room of their home to diners in Pitsmoor.
So, after a few years retirement from the restaurant game the Fungs are back – matriarch Susan gives advice – hoping that after the Golden Tiger and Golden Dragon, the Orient Express will be their golden egg.
We have never met so many smiling, beaming waiting staff, kitted out in sky blue shirts, although as I suspected, they had rumbled us.
The menu looks good with quite a few dishes not normally seen. As in all Chinese restaurants, the list is long but it’s divided into bite-sized sections of soups, starters, Cantonese favourites, noodles, ‘big plate’ rice dishes and, a feature here, clay pot cooking.
We opted for three starters. A hot and sour soup (£2.50) took me back to the ‘business lunches’ of the Sixties, a wonderfully gloopy affair with prawns, noodles and strips of dried fungus.
There were also crispy fried won tons (£3.50), wrapped around little nuggets of minced prawns, and mussels in black bean sauce (£3).
The mussels were green lipped, never my favourite. “A bit chewy but I love the sauce,” my wife said.
I had to try a hot pot (£7). This is a Cantonese speciality, with rice and other goodies baked in an earthenware pot like a small tagine. The rice at the bottom turns crispy.
I skipped the one involving spare ribs and chicken feet (although I have eaten the deep-fried tootsies), for the dried-cured duck and pork belly version, which they cure themselves.
At this point Kevin’s brother David had magically appeared at our table to explain it. “It’s like Parma ham. Not sliced very thin but the same texture,” he said.
You’re in for a bit of a chew but I loved the salty, fatty taste of the duck, which is cut on the bone. This means you get skin, flesh and bone in one mouthful but before you shudder think how easy it is to crunch the bones in that old favourite, crispy duck.
The pork belly, naturally, tasted a little bacony but there were slices of slightly fruity Chinese sausage to offset the other meats and half a salted duck egg.
“You’ve got Chinese bacon and egg,” observed my wife who thought the dish “lacked kerb appeal” for her.
Clay pot cooking tends to be dry so each pot comes with a smaller one of soy sauce to moisten the contents. What’s the betting a modification of this dish is taken up by some of the city’s more imaginative posh chefs?
We also had an intriguing Buddha vegetables (£6), a mix of slithery black fungus, some of the best fried tofu I’ve had (normally the texture defeats me), with water chestnuts, broccoli and crispy carrots.
Perhaps the most conventional was the sizzling chicken with ginger and spring onion (£7) but it could have been more gingery for our taste.
Chinese restaurants never do much in the way of sweets. Remember the tinned fruit with ‘E milk’ (evaporated milk) from the Sixties? Later you got an orange – still do in some places.
The Orient Express offers locally made Yee Kwan ice cream and sorbet in four flavours so we went through the card (£2.80 a two-scoop bowl).
With brown tea (£1.20) to drink, we paid £36.10.
290 Glossop Road, Sheffield S10 2HS.
Tel: 0114 272 8260.
Open daily 11.30am-11pm. Licensed. Disabled access and toilet. Credit cards. Music. Street parking.
My star ratings (out of five):