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FOOD REVIEW: The Flaming Dragon, Unit 3/2 Centertainment, Broughton Lane, Sheffield

SO times are hard, belts are being notched ever tighter and Sheffield's downtrodden masses simply can't eat out any more, right? Wrong!

But what depresses me is the apparent lack of discernment when it comes to choosing where to spend that hard-earned cash.

Venturing out for a long-overdue recce of the Valley Centertainment complex, we are dumbstruck by the hoards of revellers packing every restaurant, queueing for tables and generally milling around. It's like Blackpool pleasure beach on a sunny evening – and the restaurants wouldn't look out of place there, either.

The city's independent restaurateurs are struggling valiantly to tempt the dining public through their doors, with a whole range of earlybird menus and discount offers.

But while they cut their profit margins to offer tasty, nutritious food at great value prices, an army of potential customers, it seems, is whooping it up at the culinary equivalent of a theme park.

It's a sad commentary on modern society if the current preoccupation with 'locally sourced' produce stops at the restaurant door.

We expect our chefs to support Sheffield businesses and producers where possible but when it comes to supporting them, apparently, our allegiance is forgotten.

It must be said that Valley Centertainment has one big advantage over the city centre – free parking. Though finding a space when there's anything on at the neighbouring Arena can be a tall order.

We head for the Flaming Dragon, a relative newcomer to the complex, which has recently come in for criticism in the national media over its pricing policy. Until now children over 140cm have been charged the adult rate but from July 4 the lower price will apply to all under-16s.

Adults pay 9.90 (5.20 before 5pm) for as much as they can eat; under-16s 4.50 (3). It's cheap as chips – which are, indeed, one of the dishes on the menu, along with just about any other fast food you care to mention.

The chain bills itself as a 'three in one' dining specialist. That is Japanese teppanyaki, Brazilian grill and a hot buffet of more than 60 'East meets West' dishes.

There is no sign of any teppanyaki being cooked, to order or otherwise.

There's no sign of a Brazilian grill, either, unless they're referring to the rubbery frankfurter sausages speared on cocktail sticks offered round by a waitress.

And for 'East meets West' buffet read 'any type of cuisine found in the fast food takeaways of the average British city'. There's cheesy baguette, Indian samosas, Peking duck, Thai stir-fry, Mongolian lamb, Vietnamese fish, barbecued chicken wings, ham omelette, Japanese sushi – and chips.

The thought of mixing that lot on one plate would be enough to put a lot of people right off their dinner but it's clearly no problem for our fellow diners.

The Flaming Dragon, like a fair number of its customers, is straining at the seams. All round us people are troughing their way through a pick-and-mix of calorie-laden excess; then going back for more. It's not a pretty sight.

Or perhaps I'm just biased because I know they could enjoy a tasty, well-balanced meal for a similar price just a mile or two up the road.

The restaurant itself is a cavernous space with red walls, cream floor and ceiling and a series of glossy red pillars and lengths of fringing that serve as dividers. Regimented ranks of tables and chairs – dozens of them – line the room and the focal point is a vast stainless steel buffet bar.

We're shown to the last available table and our waitress disappears to fetch our drinks (tonic water for me, Tiger beer for him), leaving us to help ourselves.

The biggest problem for the uninitiated is where to start. There's no apparent order and it's a case of deciding what might constitute a starter, then hunting for it.

I make for the sushi, which looks pretty good. Unfortunately the taste does not match up. The rice is sticky, the fillings indeterminate, the overall impression sour.

Salads are fine, though of the pre-fabricated variety: sweetcorn and sultanas, kidney beans with olives, mushrooms and more sultanas.

My companion fares little better: hot and sour soup is neither hot nor particularly sour and of a gloopy, glutinous consistency that reminds us of frogspawn.

Our plates are whisked away – service is like a finely honed military operation – and we head back to the bar for main courses.

Again it's difficult to make sense of the hotch-potch but we each pick a selection of dishes to try. Most are remarkably similar, variations on a theme, but a few are actually pretty good.

Vietnamese steamed fish is soggy and tasteless; calamari is spoiled by greasy batter; shredded duck is more like sawdust; and Mongolian braised lamb is like shoe leather.

But a nutty satay sauce is great with tender pieces of seasoned chicken; Thai roast pork stir-fry is tangy and nicely done; and the chef's succulent king prawns (shell on) are quite delicious.

Dessert seems to be mainly luridly-coloured cakes and fancies, so we settle for fresh fruit and jelly cubes. Dinner for two, including drinks, is 25.15.

Verdict: cheap but not much to be cheerful about.

Open: daily, noon to 11pm (midnight on Saturdays)

Flaming Dragon, Unit 3/2 Centertainment, Broughton Lane, Sheffield (0114) 244 9866.

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