The Little Yang Sing is located on George Street in Chinatown. That's Chinatown in Manchester, not London. Few people outside the North-West know this, but Manchester boasts the biggest Chinatown in Europe, which means it can also lay claim to a cornucopia of Chinese restaurants. By common consent, Yang Sing and its recently opened offshoot Little Yang Sing are two of the best.
I arrive for an early dinner with Terry Christian, the former Word presenter and recent runner-up in Celebrity Big Brother, who has reinvented himself as a successful author. To describe Terry as a "local celebrity" scarcely does justice to how well-loved he is in his home town. It takes us 15 minutes to get from the door of the restaurant to our table, so keen are the other patrons to get his autograph, and once we are seated he has to contend with a succession of well-wishers. It's like having dinner with Alan Shearer in Newcastle or Björk in Reykjavik.
Unfortunately, the staff aren't as attentive. What is it with Chinese waiters and waitresses? It is as if they're engaged in a competition with the French to see who can radiate the most disdain towards their customers. This isn't a phenomenon confined to Britain, either. In New York, where I lived for five years, the service in Chinese restaurants is so notoriously poor that there's a Seinfeld episode devoted to the subject. Even in Las Vegas, the service capital of the world, Chinese waiters are curt and disobliging.
By Mancunian standards, the Little Yang Sing is fairly expensive, so Terry and I opt for a Carnation Banquet, priced at £19.95 per person. This entitles us to three courses, though not a dessert, and if we want to share an aromatic crispy duck with pancakes, vegetables and hoisin sauce as our middle course, we have to pay a supplement of £4 each. We decide that, on balance, we do.
We both opt for chicken-and-sweetcorn soup as a starter, which is woefully under-seasoned. Terry politely asks our waitress whether we can have some soy sauce to spice it up a bit and she looks at him as if he's just asked her to do his laundry. Soy sauce? In a Chinese restaurant? What is he thinking? With enormous reluctance, she eventually trudges off and, 10 minutes later, produces a tiny bottle of soy as if parting with a vial of liquid gold.
The aromatic crispy duck is marginally better, though not much. The duck itself is a little too crispy – isn't at least some part of it meant to be moist? – and the pancakes taste stale and leathery. Still, we steadily chomp our way through about half a dozen of them, happy to have all the components we need at the table. The hoisin sauce eventually runs out, but we decide not to tax our waitress with another impertinent request.
The "main event" (their words, not mine) is the big disappointment, at least in my case. I order pork tenderloin in a curry-flavoured marinade of lemongrass and herbs, but am brought stir-fried chicken with pineapple and sweet ginger instead. I could send it back, but we have already been waiting 20 minutes and are due at the theatre at 7.20pm. I gamely tuck into the plate of food in front of me and find myself eating a glutinous, flavourless mush that isn't recognisable as any form of meat, let alone chicken.
Terry opts for chilli Sichuan king prawn, which is a slight improvement – though, again, the protein tastes of nothing. By this time we have been joined by Johnny Jay, another local celebrity, who is the most sought-after music producer in the city. The food has been served family-style, my and Terry's dishes sitting on two large platters, but after tasting a little bit of each Johnny makes a face and announces he's already eaten. "A likely story," says Terry. "I'm sorry about this, Toby. We should have gone for a ruby on Curry Mile."
I'm sure there are dozens of excellent Chinese eateries in Manchester, but, on the basis of my visit, Little Yang Sing is not one of them: it is coasting on a reputation it no longer deserves.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Little Yang Sing, 17 George Street, Chinatown, Manchester, tel: 0161 228 7722. Mon-Thurs, noon-11.30pm; Fri, noon-midnight; Sat, noon-12.30am; Sun, noon-10.45pm. Dinner for two, including drinks and service, £78
Second helpings: Manchester marvels
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