Over a week ago now but we recently enjoyed a Saturday afternoon and evening in Manchester. No point in driving when the reliable and inexpensive Marple train gets you into Piccadilly in 23 minutes saving certain blood pressure increases on the A6 and eye-watering car parking charges. (Who now remembers the halcyon days , pre Trafford centre, when it was possible to park for free on a Saturday afternoon in the city centre?
I hope, MCC , that the paltry increases in your parking revenues are suitable compensation for the continued decline of the city centre, loss of jobs and the growth in out of town Mall culture)
The format of the expedition rarely alters, the train from Marple around 3pm, a walk across the agglomeration of East Berlin, downtown Kinshasa and free water park for the benefit classes that is now Piccadilly gardens, some desultory shopping, a small “tincture” in Thomas’s Chop House or somewhere similar then an early “Tea” in a restaurant finishing around eightish before another drink en-route back to the station,another 23 minutes to Marple , taxi home.
This trip was a little strange as I felt a sense of disengagement with Manchester that I had not previously experienced. Perhaps it’s the increase in poor behaviour witnessed in many small but noticeable ways, or maybe it’s the passing of time on my own clock and becoming less of the present and more of the past. The Manchester International Festival event village in Albert Square designed as a “creative space to meet” seemed too self indulgent for us this time. So Victor Meldrew’s doppelganger and his OH exited stage left to take themselves to the Red Chilli on Portland Street to eat.
This is the third or fourth time we have eaten here in around a year and it is quite different to the mainly Cantonese cuisine on offer throughout the rest of Chinatown. It is , as the name suggests, Sichuan and North Chinese food here. You can have the now familiar fare, banquet style that we all expect but the real foodies ( Not me! That Jay Rayner ) like to travel the more ethnic road. What we learned in our recent trip to Hong Kong is that Chinese people consider the majority of westerners as “pussies” when it comes to food and wonder why we eschew the tastier parts of animals, fish , fowl and amphibians in favour of the bland breast meat or meat fillet.
The rest of Manchester’s Chinatown seems to reserve it’s true culinary capabilities for Sunday lunch only (when it becomes downtown Kowloon and the seaweed is replaced by Sea cucumbers) whereas the Red Chilli opens the batting with the real deal every day. As you walk in, handwritten signs offer specials of Fish Head or Frogs Legs in spicy Grandma sauce, in the dining area the tables are often taken by Chinese families sharing stock pots of scary stuff swimming in nuclear powered chilli broth.
A perusal of the menu is a test of faith, it is necessary to stay strong , hold fast and stay away from the possible vision of starters of Crystal Pigs Ear layer and Five spice sliced Pigs Head, followed by a casserole of Marinated Pig’s Maw, Pig’s Intestines & Pig’s Liver with Beancurd & Celery Stew and a side order of poached Sliced Whelk with Beansprouts
(served with Soy Sauce …and no pig!). Like the restaurant’s own casseroles and hot pots, there are delights hidden in here for the less adventurous palate. I am not ashamed to say we opted for the middle of the banquet menus and played safe. The food, although somewhat familiar, has a certain chilli edge which gives you a feel for what may lie beyond for the true food adventurer.
Good value too, as we made our way through Beijing Hot & Sour Soup, the Courtship platter of Skewered Chicken Satay, Salt & Pepper Spare Ribs, Spring Rolls, Sesame Prawn Toast and Seaweed then moved less briskly on to the Aromatic Crispy Duck Served with the usual trimmings and finally ate main courses of Sizzling Beef Fillet with Black pepper Sauce, GongBao Diced Chicken with peanuts & Dried Chilli Bird’s Nest and some Stir Fried Pak Choi. Dried Ham and Shrimps with Vegetable Fried Rice bulked out the main courses as we had evidently not had enough to eat. Tsing Tao beer and Chinese tea provided lubrication and the tea pot was kept topped up by the pleasant waitress who corrected my Cantonese “Thank you” with a suggestion that the Mandarin “Xie Xie” would be more appreciated here at the Red Chilli.
Less than £60 later and both replete and satisfied and we were making for the station, not slackening our pace as we passed almost the complete set of Viz characters, including several San and Trays outside Yate’s Wine Lodge cranking up the evening with another vat of wine. Night shift is here now – off you oldies go.