ONE of the things I love most about this restaurant reviewing gig – apart from the chance to eat out regularly at the paper’s expense, obviously – is that you get the chance to talk to people with a passion for food.
Sometimes you find this in places that you might not necessarily expect it, too.
Harmony Cafe is a tiny little Chinese place on Westfield Terrace, just off West Street, which caters to a mixture of Chinese and south-east Asian students and other Sheffielders who have spotted the chance to grab a quick, cheap and tasty meal.
It’s run by chef John Liu, who is Sheffield born and bred, and his wife Ivy, who runs the front of house operation.
This is their first cafe and before that they had takeaways, including the Oriental Express in Woodhouse and Sun Yee in Crookes.
The Harmony is tiny and can only seat 20 but John and Ivy have just taken over the former Cafe Guru further down the street and it is being refitted with a view to opening in early September. That will be able to seat 50 people.
The move was prompted by the popularity of the place, where I’ve seen customers queuing to get in at lunchtime.
John will expand the menu at the new place but it will be basically the same, offering dishes that have msotly originated in Hong Kong or Szechuan province, plus a range of the usual Chinese menu choices.
Like the Mandar-Inn on London Road that I visited a few weeks ago, there are actually two menus, one aimed at Chinese customers and the other for the rest of us. There are also a few specials on little notices near the counter.
The cafe, which is busiest at lunchtime, also offers full English breakfasts and breakfast butties.
When I asked about what dishes are favourites on the more authentic menu, John said that lots of people order the tasty braised beef.
Plenty of effort goes into it, with flank of beef marinaded overnight in about 12 spices, including Chinese five-spice powder, ginger, garlic and bay leaves, before it is cooked very slowly to tenderise it.
Another braised lamb dish features bean curd and John explained that the bean curd melts completely, adding a distinctive flavour to the sauce.
A lot of work for a dish that costs £5.80.
The Harmony is typical of the little Chinese cafes that have been springing up around the student areas of the city centre. It’s very basic with little tables dotted about and you order at the counter and pay up front, then your order is brought to you. You’ll be asked if you want to use chopsticks or not.
There’s a choice of lots of different teas and soft drinks in a chiller cabinet. The new restaurant will be licensed but will only offer a few Chinese beers. John doesn’t fancy it being party central.
As with the Mandar-Inn, there are no starters on the ‘authentic’ menu as Chinese diners have all their dishes served together.
We decided we would have some and Janet went for the chef’s special combination (£4.80) which includes spring rolls, prawn toasts, prawns, wan tons and sweet and sour sauce.
Usually there would be spare ribs but, in finding out that Janet does not eat meat, Ivy helpfully swapped them for Thai fishcakes. Her serving style is efficient rather than warm, so this little bit of kindness went a long way – even if it meant I couldn’t nick the ribs.
I went for deep-fried crab claws (£2.50).
Janet’s platter was plentiful and exactly what you’d expect. She enjoyed it and I liked the little pastry I tried. I’d be surprised if any of it was home-made but it’s not claimed to be.
My crab claws were three balls of crab meat in breadcrumbs with a bit of claw sticking out of each. They tasted fine and came with a sweet and sour dipping sauce.
On to the authentic stuff and we ordered main courses from the other menu.
It is daunting with 91 mainly fried rice, vermicelli, chow mein or udon noodle choices, including the amazing-sounding spam foo yung.
I went for salty fish and chicken fried rice (£5.80) and Janet had the Szechuan vegetable and shrimp fried rice (£5.80).
When I spoke to John afterwards, he was surprised that a non-Chinese person had ordered my dish as he says most Westerners don’t like the smell of the fish.
Basically it’s a generous bowlful of egg fried rice with added ingredients and I loved the chicken and fish, whose textures contrasted well with the beautifully soft rice.
Janet really enjoyed her fried rice with a good few shrimps and vegetables and we learned afterwards that the shredded lettuce leaves she enjoyed in the dish are marinaded and then cooked dry to keep their bite.
I had a taste and the flavours were unusual with a bit of a spicy hit.
This isn’t the sort of place where you get pud, so we had more jasmine tea.
In total we paid £24.10.
lVerdict: the standard of food and value for money bodes well for the New Harmony expansion.
lOpen: Monday to Saturday, 10.30am to 10pm.
lHarmony Cafe, 11 Westfield Terrace, Sheffield, S1 4GH. Tel 0114 272 7433.