[Manchester, city centre] Red Chilli, Portland Street

When Red Chilli opened in the early 2000s, it was the first Sichuan restaurant to open in the area. Anyone who might have called themselves a foody went (that’d include us). It even appeared in the Good Food Guide and had a national newspaper review (Jay Rayner – he liked it, as everyone liked it). There was a menu of almost exclusively Sichuan dishes, with a big “homestyle” section on the menu – dishes featuring offal and packed with chilli (the restaurant name is something of a clue).

But then it went off. They introduced more Cantonese dishes which, unsurprisingly, were done better by the Cantonese places in Chinatown. And they reduced the number of Sichuan offerings. By 2014, other Sichuan places had opened and we’d found one that we preferred. 2014 was our last visit. Not only was the Red Chilli food indifferent but I had serious concerns about the hygiene in the place. The toilets were disgusting and I always take the view that if a place doesn’t care about the parts of a restaurant that are on public view, then you are right to be concerned about what’s going on out of view – like in the kitchen. Those issues must have been shared by Environmental Health which, for a long time, gave it a very poor rating on the “scores on the doors” website.

A week or so back, I was prompted to look at the scores again and saw that they now had a very respectable 4 out of 5 score – higher than many Chinatown places. It was time to give it another try.

The menu is still a mix of Cantonese and Sichuan dishes, together with some new (to me) Beijing style ones. We shared a Beijing one as a starter – finger sized chunks of cucumber in a thin, and quite hot, dressing, topped with a scattering of finely chopped garlic. It was really nice and we kept most of it to have as a sort of cooling influence on what we knew would be pretty spicy main courses.

We decided to stick to a couple of Sichuan dishes that we’d had here years back and at other Sichuan places. It was a good idea, as we have a sense of what we like about them and could judge these against the others. There was gong bao chicken – and it was the right mix of chicken, peanuts and chilli in a sweetish sauce (nowhere near as sweet as a Cantonese “sweet & sour”). And just about the right chilli heat level for us. The other dish was green beans with pork. It’s almost vegetarian (yes, I know that’s like being a little bit pregnant). Lots of crisp beans and only a little pork mince mixed through – almost a seasoning. There was more chilli in this version than we’ve had elsewhere but it was none the worse for that. It was, however, noticeably oilier than other versions which was not an improvement. Rice was fine.

Service had been good and, unusually for Chinatown, quite hospitable – the restaurant manager coming for a brief chat after the meal to see how we’d enjoyed ourselves and to say that the kitchen can always fine tune the amount of chilli in a dish. Oh, yes – and those disgusting toilets? No worries on that score. They’ve been completely modernised and were spotless. I sure we’ll be back to try some other dishes fairly soon – I do see poached mutton in chilli oil in my future sometime.