FOOD & DRINK / A taste of China with northern notes: Yang Sing

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YANG SING

34 Princess Street, Manchester M1 4JY. Tel: 061-236 2200.

Open every day from 12 noon onwards. Lunch and dinner average pounds 20- pounds 25 per head.

All major credit cards accepted. Banqueting suites for private parties.

HAVING spent the best part of my working life howling with happy laughter at other people's bloomers, I have shamefacedly to confess to a particularly embarrassing one in my last column, for which I can only apologise.

When I ended my review of the generous helpings and enthusiastic regional cheer of the Crossways Hotel at Wilmington, I meant to end on a tone of self-reproach by describing my irresponsible blow-out as the 'whole gluttonous experience'. Baffled by my appalling handwriting the compositor misread this as 'the whole glutinous experience'. I am extremely sorry, and would again recommend the Crossways' Dinner, Bed and Breakfast offer at pounds 45.00 to anyone walking the South Downs who has a really healthy appetite.

This week I went north to the Yang Sing in Manchester, one of the great Chinese restaurants in a town rich in Chinese restaurants, and one that manages to carry off its excellence with an extraordinary lack of self-conciousness. I was once there with one of our best known and most popular restaurant proprietors, who in a moment of bonhomie slapped one of the Chinese waiters on the back and said: 'You're a little genius]' The waiter grinned, slapped him on the back in return, and said: 'Yeah, you're a little genius too]'

The restaurant is housed in the basement of an old Victorian office building. You go up some broad stone steps under a massive stone arch and a smiling bouncer-cum-greeter dressed in a dinner jacket shows you downstairs into a kind of Manchester-Chinese version of a Bavarian beer cellar.

A lot is beer is drunk, although the house wine is very good and not particularly expensive, and there is a mood of real celebration, even when nobody is actually singing. The impression is of an exotic basement filled with enormous round tables, with parties of a dozen or more diners at each. Smaller, quieter parties sit round the edges of the room, and the acoustics are such that it is possible to have quite an intimate dinner there without really being aware of the revellers.

Roughly half the waiters are Chinese, half European, and the restaurant is managed by a grave, bespectacled Chinese man at a black lacquer desk at the foot of the stairs. The decor is a brash but cosy mixture of styles: a mural in one corner depicts black and white flying cranes; odd, theatrically-lit, golden-glinting niches contain what might be bits of scenery from an old production of Chu Chin Chow; and beyond one glass wall there are gleaming kitchens where European and Chinese cooks mop floors, cook or squat to eat their own food out of little bowls.

We were in a party of eight, and unquestionably the most impressive thing about the Yang Sing was the charm, speed and efficiency of the service. The Yang Sing specialises in providing a great deal of very good food very quickly. The waitress took a barrage of conflicting orders, perching on the side of my wife's chair and complaining with a grin how tired she was, made a couple of suggestions, and had all the food on the table in a matter of minutes. The service is the same whether you order yourself or let the staff suggest one of their banquets, which cost about pounds 20 a head - unless you have the Lobster with Ginger and Spring Onions, which is slightly more expensive.

Chinese food in England, as victims of Chinese takeaways will remember, generally suffers from long storage: stale ingredients, soggy batter, sticky rice, and sauces and gravies that taste terrible when you're eating them - and worse afterwards. The food at the Yang Sing, by contrast, tastes as though it has come straight from the market, the rice and noodles steaming from the pan, fresh King Prawns, fresh vegetables, every flavour and element distinct and delicious.

There are a great many exotic dishes - like Oz's Tripe with Pickled Cabbage, or Roasted Suckling Pig - but I would particularly recommend the simplest things, like the Chicken with Mushroom and Winter Bamboo Shoots, or the Braised Sliced Duck with Seasonal Greens, or the Special Chow Mein. All are a revelation of what Chinese food tastes like with fresh ingredients.

We were celebrating a birthday, so everyone was already in a fairly merry mood - and then the singing started. A table of middle-aged men were eating in one corner, all swinging beer mugs. One of them, who was fatter than the rest and wearing a green shirt, stood up from time to time to give us his Mario Lanza impersonation.

In London it would have been slightly menacing: in Manchester it was the friendliest thing imaginable. You had the impression they weren't really drunk at all, just pretending, as if it were part of a ritual.

They sang 'Happy Birthday' to our table, then a couple of Beatles songs, then 'Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah'; people at the other tables went on eating and laughing and having a good time. The waiters stayed attentive, bringing in more bottles of wine at the lift of an eyebrow, and you had the feeling that all the people in the restaurant were very fond of each other.

When the vocalist in the green shirt sat down, a graver figure with neatly combed hair and a tie stood up and conducted them with a great show of seriousness with a fork. It reminded me more than anything else of restaurants in Hungary, where whole tables suddenly burst into astonishing close harmony.

By the time we'd finished eating, the party in the corner had gone through its whole repertoire (the conductor, in the meantime, had exchanged his fork for a chopstick) and they stood up, joined hands round the table and sang 'Auld Lang Syne'. When they left, one of them put an arm very decorously round a waitress, and then they all went soberly off and up the steps.

The bill for a menu we'd all chosen entirely at random came to almost exactly pounds 20 a head, including wine and tip.-

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