THE A-board outside the new Mulan Chinese restaurant on West Street is entirely in Chinese. So is the writing on the windows. I poke my head around the door and ask a waitress: “Do you have a menu in English?”
Of course they do but I could be forgiven for asking. The street has changed complexion in little more than a year.
The pavements are thronged with Chinese students, there are three Chinese supermarkets within yards of me and twice as many Chinese restaurants, all of them new.
And I thought it was London Road, with its cheaper rents, which was Sheffield’s China Town.
Numbers vary as to how many Chinese students are in the city but Chinese businessmen talk of around 7-8,000. If anything, says David Chan, who has just opened Noodle Inn Centro on Westfield Terrace, just off West Street, he senses they’ve gone up slightly this year to compensate for fewer English students after worries over tuition fees.
It’s well known our overseas visitors are wealthy. You could guess that from the number of new places which have recently opened on West Street and its continuation, Glossop Road, to cater for them. Sheffield’s Chinese businessmen are cashing in on this ‘harvest.’
The location is hipper than London Road, where restaurants have been mostly been Anglo-Chinese, and so is the décor. And the food is more like what they eat at home in Mainland China – roast bullfrog anyone?
West Street is also more convenient for them than London Road because it is nearer the halls of residence.
According to Lily Chan, who runs Mulan, many of them have between £80,000 and £100,000 to spend, money raised by their families back home, as well as from grants. “They don’t know how to make money but they know how to spend it,” she smiles.
She reckons four out of five students in her restaurant, which opened at the beginning of August, are from Northern China. “They all speak Mandarin and not very good English. They don’t speak Cantonese (the language of most Sheffield Chinese).” They feel at home at Mulan. She also speaks Mandarin.
She often sees the same faces three times a day, at 11am when they open and again at 5pm for coffee and cakes and again at 9pm. Can’t they cook? Who needs to cook when you’ve got the money, she points out.
Mulan is in the premises of the former Jocosa bar. Foodies will remember it as the site of the old Le Neptune restaurant, where Richard Smith made his first appearance on the city’s eating scene. He wouldn’t recognise it.
There is still work to be done but it looks hip, with sleek rows of high-backed chrome chairs in red and black at black wooden tables under a white ceiling. A blackboard menu offers today’s fish and today’s vegetables but as the rest of the writing is in Chinese I’ll never know.
After our meal I ask Lily about the A-board on the pavement. “One day it is in Chinese, the next day in English,” she explains.
The menu is divided into appetisers, mostly under £6, traditional home dishes around £7 or less, big plate rice at £6.80, fried noodle and traditional dishes (as opposed to traditional home dishes) and bamboo steamed rice dishes (£2 more).
David, my stepson, has specially starved himself for the occasion as my wife is indisposed and we order a little more bravely than usual.
We begin with siu mai (£3.80), four little pork and prawn steamed dumplings which look like eyeballs peering up at you. They are pleasant but not a patch, says David, on the dumplings at Pho68. That’s Vietnamese I say, springing to Mulan’s defence.
The salt and pepper fried squid (£6.80), is better although I’m a little surprised to find the squid is battered.
But our meal really takes off with the mains. We ordered bamboo steamed rice with Chinese mushroom, squid and ribs (£8.80), served in a section of bamboo tube or something very like it. With it we have hot and spicy pigs ear (£6.80), from the traditional home dishes section, and duck with black bean sauce (£6.80) from the traditional dishes slate.
The steamed rice, sticky and clumpy, with little bits of slithery mushroom, chopped ribs and squid, grows on you. The taste is unremarkable but the texture is. I should imagine it is a comfort food like bangers and mash or rice pudding.
The pigs ear is served warm so it’s hot and spicy in terms of chilli heat. Sliced thinly it looks a bit like streaky bacon. The texture’s similar, then comes the crunch as your teeth hit the layer of gristle, followed by a blast of chilli.
“Who eats pig’s ears in England?” asks David, curious. Only people in very posh restaurants and dogs, I tell him.
The duck, with a glorious black bean sauce, which comes sizzling to the table, is our favourite, full of flavour and made with black beans instead of a bottled sauce.
We belatedly realise all our dishes have been labelled with two or three chillis on the menu but it’s only when we finish eating that we really notice the heat.
We’ve enjoyed the meal in a trendy atmosphere and it’s only after we’ve paid the bill, which comes to £35.60 with green and iced jasmine tea, that I realise we could have had dessert.
“We haven’t got around to getting a menu out,” says Lily.
It’s probably in Chinese on the blackboard.
The Dawes Verdict
141 West Street, Sheffield S1 4EW.
Tel: 0114 272 7135.
Open all week 11am-10.30pm. Covers: 100.
Licence applied for. No credit cards on our visit but coming. Vegetarian dishes. Disabled access and toilet. Street parking.