IF YOU’VE ever fancied a trip to the far east but never quite got around to it, you could do worse than pop down to York’s latest Chinese restaurant, Chef Lu’s in Walmgate. It’s a no-frills little backstreet eatery - but step through the door and you really could be stepping into China.

The experience begins when you ring up to book. “Wei?” says the girl on the other end of the phone - the standard Chinese telephone greeting.

She quickly switches to English when she realises the person she’s talking to isn’t Chinese - but it’s a pretty good indicator of who most of Chef Lu’s customers are. There’s a hubbub of chattering voices in the background, too - and they’re all speaking Chinese.

The restaurant is tucked into one of the tiny units at Huby Court, on Walmgate just inside the bar. Prime student territory. And sure enough, when we turned up at the restaurant on a Saturday evening, it was packed full to the rafters with young Chinese people, making the sort of noise only young Chinese people can.

Even though we’d booked, there were no free tables. But one quickly became available, and we were invited to sit down beneath a large wall mural of happy Chinese children tucking into a tasty meal. An even larger mural on the opposite wall showed a scene from a traditional Chinese restaurant of the Ming Guo period (about the time of the Sun Yat Sen revolution of 1911) - all Chinese men in long, shapeless smocks with pigtails hanging down their backs.

The decor at Chef Lu’s isn’t sophisticated - the outside looks more like a takeaway, and inside the tables are small, and crammed together. But that, combined with the bedlam of excited Chinese voices, just made the experience more authentic. It reminded me of the many cheap restaurants I ate at in China during my years living there.

And anyway, we were here for the food. On the restaurant’s website, my wife Lili had seen a photograph of a steaming bowl of lotus root soup, something it is hard to find here. She had been looking forward to it for days - only to be disappointed. “We don’t serve it any more,” our waitress told us. “It wasn’t very popular.”

Still, there’s a fairly extensive menu. We decided to push the boat out, and sample several dishes, knowing that if we couldn’t finish everything, we could pack up what was left and take it home. That’s standard practice in Chinese restaurants.

The menu has several sections - appetisers, chef’s recommendations, main dishes, ‘iron wok’ dishes, soups, and rice and noodles. Me being a vegetarian and Lili a committed meat eater, we chose a selection of each: the salt & pepper tofu (£3 - always one of my favourites) from the appetiser menu, then the stir fried pork kidney (£8), stir fried potato, aubergine and green pepper (£7.50), home-style bean curd (£7.50), iron wok cauliflower (£7.50) and prawns in an iron wok (£11). Lili also ordered the ‘fish meat slice and tofu’ soup (£2.80) and we each had boiled rice (£1.50 per person).

This being a Chinese restaurant, each dish arrived as soon as it was cooked, with no distinction between starters, soups and mains. Soon, our table was groaning with food.

The quality was variable. The salt and pepper tofu was lacking in flavour, and not as light and crispy as I like it. The kidney, too, was not as tender as Lili would have liked, and her prawns - which arrived looking sumptuous in a large iron wok - were disappointing. The flavour all remained on the shells, she said - so that once peeled, the prawns were tasteless. The waitress offered to have them re-cooked, which she did, and the taste improved - but they still weren’t the best Lili had had.

The fish soup was good enough, Lili said - though again, far from the best she had ever eaten. But the cauliflower was good - large chunks of crunchy, tasty cauliflower in a flavoursome sauce - and the home-style beancurd was excellent: triangles of soft, chewy tofu with slices of green pepper in a tongue-tingling spicy red sauce. Pick of the dishes, for me, however, was the potato and aubergine. It looked a gloopy mess, but it was piping hot, the potatoes beautifully cooked and the aubergine divine.

We feasted until we could eat no more, and packed up and took home with us what was left - recooked at home, it made for two more good meals.

The total bill, with drinks, came to £60 - reasonable value.

Chef Lu’s is cheap and cheerful. It is far from the best Chinese food you’ll find in York - but if you’re up for a bit of culture shock and want to see how Chinese students in York live, it’s a fun experience.

And certainly a lot cheaper than forking out £800 for a ticket to Beijing...