I’ve eaten my share of Chinese. I’ve overdosed on crab and ginger at the long gone Jumbo’s in Leeds and gone off-menu at Manchester’s Yang Sing. I’ve banqueted in Canton (before it became Guangzhou) on fragrant vegetables and delicate turnip cakes though more vivid memories are of chicken gizzard, jellyfish, thousand-year-old eggs, snake and, quite possibly, dog.
I’ve strolled wide-eyed through Guangzhou’s Qingping animal market where frogs, terrapins, owls and civet cats were alive and on sale for the pot. And I’ve been reading Fuschia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, an account of her eating her way through the entire Chinese kitchen and finding an unexpected complexity and richness to it all.
Still I’m left wondering why, with a few exceptions, Chinese menus in Britain are virtually all alike. The names may change but the food – I concede a soft spot for Red Chilli in Leeds and York – stays tediously the same; loosely Cantonese-based, modified for English tastes. Lupsup – rubbish – as the Chinese waiter in Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet derisively calls his food for the English.
So I was intrigued to hear about Mans Market, a new opening in Leeds by nightclub owner Ray Chan, who claims to have created “a classic Chinese menu modernized with a new age twist within an accessible and hip environment”. Can this be it at last, a reinvention of Chinese cuisine for the 21st century?
Behind a discreet black door in the high rise canyon of Westpoint on Wellington Street you enter a faux Hong Kong: a wall of waving golden fortune cats, another wall of plastic handbags, a row of fans and fake Hong Kong signs. It’s kitsch – a riff on Hong Kong’s Ladies Market – and fun.
Descending the stairs, the windowless basement opens out into a large industrial space: filament lights, exposed heating ducts, metal chairs, rough wood tables, open-plan kitchen – get the picture?
The menu is thankfully short. We’re told to write our order on a “Feed Me” card then hang it on a giant peg above our heads for the waiter to see. Anarchically, we short-circuit the process by the old-fashioned way of talking to our agreeable Irish waiter and letting him do the writing. Yes, Irish. Most unusually for a Chinese restaurant, the waiting team are all Gweilo Westerners.
From the choice of three “daily” dim sum, I choose pork and prawn sui mai, four little dumplings in wanton wrappers delivered in a bamboo steamer. They’re fine, buta dipping sauce would have added a bit of edge. That new age twist? Frankly, they are not much different from the ones I can pick up in the Chinese supermarket.
Now, there’s nothing cornier on a Chinese menu than prawn toast. “Dirty food”, guilty pleasure, call it what you like, but that crunch of fried bread through to the savoury prawn layer and nutty finish is a calorie-laden treat. Never fails.
So here comes Mans Market’s twist on prawn toast. Weirdly, it involves a baguette. The prawn mix is spread over a thick slice of baguette and grilled to a dry, doughy finish. It may be healthier but in removing the guilt they have taken away all the pleasure.
There are other starters. I can’t speak for the salt and pepper squid, the crispy aromatic duck rolls or the chocolate and coffee spare ribs but I’ve already realised this is not the new dawn for Chinese food.
On to the mains. My sweet and sour chicken consists of pieces of battered chicken hanging pretentiously off a tall skewer, suspended from a hook over the plate. The plate has a portion of carefully moulded, fried brown rice and a mix of pepper, onion and pineapple in a gloopy sauce. More sweet sauce comes in a little jug to pour over. I can’t fault the chicken, which is nicely tender, but the pepper/pineapple combo is sweet enough without adding more from the jug.
The duck and pork char sui is the better and more elegant dish: multiple slices of meat resting on spinach and given a sort of barbecue sauce. The duck, in particular, is decently done and the sauce has five spice flavouring, but I’ve had better egg fried rice from the cheapest takeaway.
Ironically the best thing of the night are the chips. Who orders chips in a Chinese restaurant? We do on the recommendation of a neighbouring table. Dosed with five spice powder, chilli and spring onion, they are very good.
We finish our Tsingtao beer, mentally thanking the staff for not refilling our glasses every five seconds, peg up the “I wanna go” card and are back out on the pavement within the hour. They’ve sunk money into the premises but not as much soul into the food. The search goes on.
• Mans Market, Unit F, Wellington Street, Leeds. 0113 244 0808, mansmarkets.com. Price: dinner for two including a bottle wine and service, £70.