LONG ago in a city far away I was then a teenager enthralled by the prospect of a new 24- hour restaurant.
What, I wondered, would a Wimpy burger and a frothy coffee taste like at 3am?
Much the same as it does at midday, but blurred by the dull mist of tiredness in an almost empty place, I discovered.
When the Genting casino opened underneath the ‘Cheesegrater’ car park on Sheffield’s Arundel Gate and announced that one of its two restaurants, the pan-Asian Hou Mei cafe, would be there 24/7 (apart from Christmas Day) I briefly toyed with going at 3am.
But as this column does not pay double time for late nights and early mornings I rejected the idea.
Instead we went for lunch.
It was quiet. We were welcomed by three staff, two of them of oriental appearance (Genting is owned by Malaysians) who wanted to know if we were members. We’re not so were enrolled as temporary ones (it’s free) and had our pictures taken.
I wanted to know what Hou Mei (pronounced Hoy Me) meant in English. Selina smiled enigmatically. “Who knows, ]i=]u
0=perhaps something delicious?”
An escalator sweeps you down into the bowels of temptation but luckily my Methodist anti-gambling upbringing helped me walk unscathed past the roulette and blackjack tables and the twinkling slot machines towards the café.
I’d half expected the casino to be full of wealthy Chinese students taking a break between their studies and buying a new Range Rover (you should hear the stories about how much loot they have) but there weren’t, just a few people playing roulette.
Hou Mei stretches the length of one wall and could seat several hundred but there were just three leather booths for four, the remaining space given over to poker tables in readiness for a big tournament.
There was no one around for several minutes until a friendly face looked over the low wall to the café and said she’d be with us shortly.
The casino may be for high rollers but the prices aren’t: dishes are £3, £4 or £5 with sides at £3 and take in everything from chicken satay and Thai red curry to oriental salads to Malaysian laksa noodle soup.
But I was intrigued by the café website which promised “crispy pork belly lollipops” and “crispy salt and pepper langoustines.”
We couldn’t find them anywhere on the menu and nor could our waitress, the first of four to serve us.
She pointed us to the sticky spare ribs, suggesting it meant those.
“If they’re not, we’ll tell you,” I said. They weren’t and I couldn’t. We saw her get her coat and go home.
You order by marking up an order slip, a bit like placing a bet on the 3.30pm at Newmarket.
You’d think you couldn’t go wrong but you can, they forgot two of the dishes.
We’d ordered three small plates at £3 each: salt and pepper squid, chicken gyoza and lamb samosa, which ticked off China, Japan and India, plus spare ribs (£4) which could be anywhere.
They were very impressive, bright little jewels of taste and high quality.
The gyoza, little pasty-shaped dumplings, oozed chicken juiciness while the samosas, packed with meat and a powerful chilli kick, would put many an Indian restaurant to shame.
There could have been a tincy bit more seasoning in the squid for my taste but the only thing stopping the sticky spare ribs from soft, tender, honey and ginger flavoured exquisiteness was that they were barely warm. Each apart from the ribs came with a dipping sauce which added an extra layer of flavour.
If we’d have stopped with the starters I’d have said “I’ll give it foive” like Janice Nicholls on Thank Your Lucky Stars but we pressed on: our mains were pretty decent but flavours started to wobble.
My duck curry (the only dish at £6) had plenty of duck – and butternut squash – but was overwhelmed by its thick, sweet sauce, not bad in itself but the balance was wrong.
The red Thai prawn curry (£5) was more sauce than prawns.
The chicken satay salad (£4) had good chicken but red chillis, coriander and a few posh leaves don’t make an oriental salad.
Each of these dishes were no more than the sum of their parts but you really can’t grumble for the money.
Well, perhaps I can about the wok-fried pak choi, swamped by a sauce which what might have planned to be chilli jam, but not the sticky rice, just as it said (two dishes for £3).
So what did we think? asked Sophie, our fourth and final waitress?
Much better than I expected, particularly the starters, I told her. “Me too and I’m very picky about my food,” she said sweetly.
I told her that we had thought of coming at 3am. We wouldn’t have been alone. “It gets busy with people leaving the pubs, clubs and students. Word’s getting out about the food.”
We finished up with a vivid tasting mango sorbet and the shortest of shortbread biscuits and pretty decent crème brûlée flavoured with lemon grass and kaffir lime (£3 each).
Just a thought, you get chopsticks and spoon and fork to eat with but no knife.
The bill for food was £37, very good value, although few like us will necessarily eat as much.
A much better bet in my book than playing the tables.
The Dawes Verdict
St Paul’s Place, Arundel Gate, Sheffield S1 2NJ.
Tel: 114 228 8980.
Open: Open 24 hours all year (not Christmas Day).
Limited veggie option. Credit cards. Music. Disabled access and toilets. Car park: it’s below one.