Chaophraya Manchester, 19 Chapel Walks, Manchester, M2 1HN – Visit Now
If you have even the slightest interest in South-East Asian cuisine, or Manchester dining in general, you’ll have heard of Chaophraya. Opening in 2007 on Chapel Walks, this Thai restaurant almost immediately won best newcomer in the city’s food and drink awards, and went on to win best restaurant multiple times. There are now seven Chaophraya restaurants across the UK, along with Thaikhun, a spin-off chain focusing on Thai street food. But as business has boomed, has the food quality kept up?
It’s certainly one of the most attractive looking restaurants around, well-lit and relaxed, with a not-too-loud soundtrack of laid-back lounge music (unlike some of its rivals over in Chinatown). The two hundred person space is split into small cosy rooms, peppered with Thailand-related curios. And while the waiting staff wear traditional Thai garb and greet customers with a bow, it never feels stuffy or over-formal. Indeed, there’s a buzz to the atmosphere, largely due to the enthusiastic energy of the staff as they proudly recommend items, with a special reverence for the dishes most faithful to classic Thai cooking.
The Maeklong platter is a fair reflection of the menu as a whole, combining conventional Thai starters with some uncommon but eye-catching items. The chicken satay skewers and prawn and pork dumplings are exceptional; juicy nuggets of meat crammed with cheek-watering umami flavour. The sweetcorn cakes are a must-try, sweet deep-fried clusters of corn that pair perfectly with the fiery dipping sauces. Crunchy spring rolls, not too brittle or too soft and bulging with chicken, are an unshowy but confident example of a simple starter made well.
The prawn tom-yum soup is more visually impressive than you’d expect from a simple soup. The bowl of chubby, obscenely-pink prawns tangled together with long enoki mushrooms looks appetising enough, even before the waiter pours a glass teapot full of red-hot sour soup over it. The whole thing becomes a creamy blend of Thai herbs and slippery shrimp, incendiary enough to cause chilli-induced nightmares but next-to-impossible to put down.
The bowl of chubby, obscenely-pink prawns tangled together with long enoki mushrooms looks appetising enough, even before the waiter pours a glass teapot full of red-hot sour soup over it.
The palm sugar and chilli glazed chicken is a new addition to the menu and leaps off the page. The meat, a baby chicken carefully split into four plump sections and grilled over charcoal, would be enjoyable enough by itself but the sauce takes it to new heights. A subtle blend of sweet plum and coriander, it doesn’t overpower but rather complements the soft buttery chicken meat, making for a refreshing alternative to the bold spice of other items. This dish might be new but it more than deserves its place.
And now for the national dish. The extensive list of ingredients in Chaophraya’s chicken pad Thai could become a jumbled mess in lesser hands, with tofu, turnip and carrot mixed up with rice noodles, egg, spring onions and egg. It’s not the most dazzling dish to look at, but taste is all that matters. It doesn’t disappoint. Every ingredient serves a purpose, a wonderful balance of flavour and texture, and clearly the result of years of fine-tuning. If you like to control the amount of spice, it comes with pleasing little mounds of peanut and chilli flakes on the side.
The desserts aren’t particularly Thai-based but make for an effective end to such remarkable food. The chocolate bombe, as seen on many a TV dating show, matches up to the tom-yum soup in the show-stopper stakes. Hot caramel sauce is poured over a hard milk chocolate ball, slowly revealing whisky-infused ice cream studded with chunks of caramel popcorn. The white chocolate box, which consists of fruit, meringue and a fluffy white chocolate mousse, doesn’t have quite the same wow factor but provides a light, clean end to the meal.
After nearly ten years, Chaophraya remains one of the city’s stand-out Thai restaurants. The menu is varied but not overwhelming, with a notable mix of classic meals and unique dishes, all demonstrating impressive levels of detail and self-assuredness. Then again, this is a restaurant named after Thailand’s biggest river, based in the centre of Manchester, a city world-famous for its waterways. Without doubt, Chaophraya knows its audience.