It was a grey Friday afternoon in Manchester and I was feeling a little under the autumnal weather. My head felt as though it was packed full of the same drizzly fog that hung over the city, my stomach craved spice and I was looking for the kind of invigorating lunch that would clear my mental fog and kick start my senses. In such circumstances, I could be forgiven for having high hopes regarding Mancunian Thai stalwart, Chaophraya. After all, Chaophraya’s website promised “authentic Thai food”, a cuisine renowned for combining the four elements of sweetness, sourness, spice and saltiness beautifully. Surely I wouldn’t walk away feeling like I’d ingested a bellyful of blandness?
Tucked away down a side street off Cross Street in Manchester, Chaophraya is undeniably stunning to look at, all elegant chandeliers and tasteful water features (the backlit jellyfish tank was enthralling). The unfailingly polite and attentive staff seemed an extension of the tasteful decor. Their sunken tables are cool and original – great if you’re feeling adventurous, or want to practice your limbo skills. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone I accidentally flashed my crotch at as I climbed out of my seat with all the agility of a drunken crab.
We started by ordering the ‘Thai Tapas’, a selection of bite-sized morsels to be shared by two people. I have a bit of an issue with non-Spanish cuisine being referred to as ‘tapas’ – I want to shout at the person who came up with the concept that IT’S NOT TAPAS! IT’S JUST SMALL FOOD! But hey, grilled sweetcorn cakes, prawn & chicken toasts, steamed dumplings, grilled spare ribs, grilled pork skewers and chicken satays wait for no woman, especially when she’s sitting across from her husband, who is both a great fan of all of those things and very hungry.
While everything we were served looked good and was cooked perfectly adequately, it was all seriously lacking in the taste department. I bit into a steamed dumpling, waiting for that delicious hit of fatty pork goodness, and got nothing. I did the same with a sweetcorn cake, a pork skewer and the satay and they were exactly the same. Practically everything on the plate was incredibly bland – there was no seasoning, no flavour, nothing apart from the taste of the accompanying sauce we’d dipped each item into. The only things that even came close to having any flavour were the spare ribs and even then, the taste was of the sticky-sweet barbeque sauce they came coated in.
We didn’t fare that much better with the mains. My deep fried sea bass was coated in a soggy batter and a gloopy chilli sauce that tasted like it had come straight from a bottle. Mr McMc’s beef Penang Curry (consisting of beef, lime leaves and coconut milk) was, again, under seasoned. A good Penang should taste of lemongrass, galangal and coriander and be thick, meaty and sweet. This was insipid, with the only flavour coming through being that of the coconut milk.
Dining at Chaophraya reminded me of an advert for H&M I saw recently featuring Lana Del Ray. On the outside, it’s beautiful but when you look closely, there’s not much going on behind the eyes. While it serves up a reasonably priced lunch deal (one course for £8.95 and two for £11.50), that doesn’t excuse the quality of the food. I wondered whether they’d felt the need to tone down their flavours to accommodate the Northern palette (which would be a shame – most Mancunians I know love a bit of spice in their lunchbox). They’ve won awards for their food, and the restaurant was full of shoppers and office workers when we visited, so you have to wonder if the kitchen was maybe having an off day. Chaophraya isn’t the only Thai restaurant in town – there’s Try Thai on Faulkner Street, the Pacific in China Town, the Siam Orchid on Portland Street. Even Ning on Oldham Street, while ostensibly a Malaysian restaurant, serves up a cracking Pad Thai. If Chaophraya was just having a bad day, they can’t afford to have them too often.
In the interests of full disclosure, we dined as guests of Chaophraya