WE MUST have done a double take as we walked into the Golden Lee Chinese restaurant and saw Stephen Marshall behind the counter.
Now if he’s oriental I’m a Chinaman.
“I expect you are wondering what I am doing here,” he says.
“The boss has got the flu and she’s asked me to take over tonight,” says Stephen, breaking off to answer the phone for yet another delivery.
You know those Chinese takeaways with a couple of tables to sit down while you wait? Well the Golden Lee, tucked next door to Highfields Library on London Road, Sheffield, is like them but bigger.
It has six tables, seating 24, minimal décor and a draughty climb to the top floor, no longer used as a dining room, and some very down at heel toilets with an out of action air dryer. It’s basic.
At night not much light shines out on to the pavement and it looks closed until you see a little neon light promising it’s open.
There have been two couples before us but no-one else comes in while we’re there except for one woman complaining about the cold. The delivery man is English, too.
Deliveries play a big part in the restaurant’s business.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got proper Chinese chefs in the kitchen,” winks Stephen, aged 65, who has been coming to the restaurant since he was “a callow youth” in 1961.
“There weren’t many others in Sheffield then: the Rickshaw, Zing Vaa, one on the Wicker . . .”
The premises started life as Lin Hong (it was already there in 1957), became the Golden Tiger, then Golden Lee, and we are here because we want a bit of retro.
Other restaurants on London Road have moved with the times but this place still does beef chop suey and chicken and pineapple fried rice.
Others feel the same way.
When owner Xau Hui Chen (Kerry for short) took over almost 11 years ago she inherited not only some long-lived customers but Stephen, who is Grandad to her sons Barry and Harry. Husband Tsing has a takeaway in Chesterfield.
“You could say our customers are getting on. But we also get students,” says Stephen, who asks us to note that the tables are not laid with cutlery. Students nick them.
“We had a huddle of them recently around that table, two left and the saucers with the condiments were missing,” he says.
He’s ready to take our order. “I’ve seen people study the menu, come in, look at me, go out, look up and check the sign and come back in. One asked jokingly which part of China I was from so I told him a little village near Beijing called Firth Park.”
We begin very well, a plate of spicy squid (£3.50), zingy with fresh chilli, and a generous quarter portion of crispy aromatic duck (£6.50) which is just as it should be – plenty of crisp skin and juicy shredded meat. We get six pancakes – an even number for once!
There is no music. Perhaps Stephen has forgotten to switch it on as there are speakers but he is good entertainment.
The mains don’t quite live up to the starters but they are of decent takeaway standard. If you want your modern Chinese flavours, look elsewhere.
We have one of the restaurant’s specials, Wandering Dragon (£5.50), a mix of chicken, roast pork, king prawn, vegetables, bean sprouts and bamboo shoots in black bean sauce.
Some of it is hot, some not so warm, some of it tasty but every now and again there’s a mouthful which tastes dull or cardboardy.
Fillet steak with black pepper (“It’s not fillet because of the price but it is very tender,” says Stephen) is pleasant although I can still taste the pepper a few hours later. It’s £5.
We have too much. We can’t finish the tasty mixed vegetables in a sweet Cantonese sauce (£3.50) or the big bowl of special fried rice (£2), with plenty of interest with egg, prawns and pork.
What goes well here? we ask Stephen. He says everything does but regulars are so predictable he can write down what they want before they order it.
I’m half expecting the orange segments or tinned fruit in evaporated milk but the only desserts here are pineapple or banana fritters. I’m determined to be retro so order the former.
A chef – yes he is Chinese – goes upstairs to bring down tins of pineapple.
I get two battered rings in syrup. It tastes only dimly of the fruit.
It’s been a pleasant meal and if you, too, want to remember how it was when you could visit the Silver Palace on London Road or the Choi Kee on Ecclesall Road then this might just do it for you.
We paid, with a couple of Chinese beers, a reasonable £34.20.
No condiments went missing after our meal.
279 London Road, Sheffield S2 4NF.
Tel: 0114 258 5980/ 0114 255 8728.
Open all week 5-midnight. No disabled toilet. Credit cards. Licensed. Street parking. Takeway and delivery service.
My star ratings (out of five):