One of the few non-student places to eat near the University of Manchester South Campus is Red Chilli. With its huge windows facing Oxford Road and Grafton Street, most people have walked by it but its grand stature and ornate furniture had probably deterred a lot of people from dropping in over lunch. Here, my colleague, Phil, and I will walk you through our experiences of visiting this restaurant.
There is also a Red Chilli in China Town which has a near identical menu.
Elsa: The interior of this restaurant is very dark and dimly lit without the brightness of sunlight coming in from the large windows. The interior is an odd mixture of dining booths, wooden furniture and Chinese architecture and a lot of fabric which makes me question how clean the premises can be kept; there are carpets and the wall dividers are also upholstered with a velvety material. The combination of lighting and furniture makes the place seem more appropriate for an evening meal as opposed to a lunching venue.
Phil: It’s a strange atmosphere in here. Depending on where you’re seated it may be very bright with the world outside bustling by a little above eye-level, or by contrast, rather dark, bordering on gloomy. If given a choice, the row of booths (not at all obvious upon entry) on the furthest side from the entrance are a good compromise: airy, light and comfortable without the traffic becoming a distraction, though catching a server’s eye from there can be more challenging.
Mutton belly in hot and spicy clay pot
Elsa: When Phil and I first stepped into Red Chilli, I knew he liked spicy food and ordered this casserole as you can’t really go wrong with a Szechuan style casserole. This dish is available with any meat you’d like and we usually go for the beef belly. It is quite spicy but flavoured also; the Szechuan peppercorns add a very warming feeling which lingers for a while after you finish eating. It’s perfect for cold days. This dish is huge though so don’t order this expecting one person to finish it.
Phil: Szechuan Pepper is ****ing magic. I could stop there, or I could write a thousand words on this amazing dish. A lot of (most) “Chinese food” leaves me unimpressed. The quotes there serve to acknowledge that a lot of the “Chinese food” you will get from local takeaways may bear relatively little resemblance to actual Chinese food, cooked and eaten in China. You know the kind of food I’m talking about here: general purpose meat, syrupy, spicy(ish), overly-sweet, salty sauce (“so this is Cantonese sauce huh?”), some rice. Generic, repeatable, filling, unhealthy. One takeaway in your locality will often taste much the same as another – much of what they are serving is the same, coming from the same wholesaler.
Not so here, or at least not for this and several other dishes which have become favourites. We’ve had the “X in hot and spicy clay pot” in the beef belly variety also. Whichever you choose, it’s a belter. Spicy without being aggressive, it may take 30 seconds before the heat becomes apparent, but when it does it never becomes “a challenge”. There’s chilli heat and Szechuan pepper, meat, veg and a lot of oil. On paper, it sounds too simple and possibly terrible. Somehow it not only works but has left me in actual awe of it simple, direct warmth. The Szechuan brings a lingering, aromatic kind of spice which nudges the balance toward “cold remedy”, but without going so far as feeling literally medicinal. And when I say “lingering”, it’s typical for me still to be experiencing “Szechuan head” twenty minutes after leaving the restaurant. This may, of course, not be what you’re after, but I adore it. In our first visit this was served with the peppercorns and whole dried chillies present and intact (so I’m glad to have at least an inkling of how to go about cooking it myself), but in subsequent versions, they have been taken out prior to serving. I slightly prefer it with the detritus, though that does make it a little harder to eat if one wishes to dig in without chomping through the texture of hard seeds.
Did I mention that I quite like this dish? Ok…
Crispy Shredded Beef in Cantonese Sauce
Elsa: We ordered this off the lunch menu, as I knew how large the clay pot dish would be. At £6.50 for a lunch meal including rice, this is a decent option for lunch if you don’t want to spend too much money. The beef is really crispy and the Cantonese sauce is sweet. The portion size is also suitable for one person to eat. This dish also compliments the hot and spicy clay pot as the sweetness cuts through the spice that lingers, meaning that the flavours aren’t masked and you can fully enjoy the flavours in each dish.
Phil: Generic meat/sauce combo.
I kid, but after experiencing the previous dish, this can only ever be second billing. It’s got a gentle kick of chilli, is quite sweet. They get the crispiness of the beef spot-on. It’s easy enough to deal with using chopsticks.
Overall rating and comments
Elsa: 7.5/10 -1 for the interior, I really don’t get the fabric wall panels or carpet and it just seems a little dirty. -1 for staff as they can be really hard to get at times. -0.5 for the time it takes for the food to arrive, sometimes it can take a while. If you’re unsure about trying this restaurant, I would really suggest you order off the lunch menu as this gives you the perfect opportunity to try out some Szechuan food.
Phil: 8/10. It’s a bit of a mixed bag this place. Interior has some issues, clearly and catching the eye of staff can be tricky at busy times (but then where isn’t this the case?). Personally, I don’t rate most of the lunch “deal” menu. Too generic and hurried – generic sauce/meat/rice combos are the mainstay and are nothing, nothing I tell you, next to the glorious Szechuan majesty of the hot spicy clay pot.
Would visit again?
Elsa: Yes, for the occasional Friday lunch time. The food is nice and the portions huge off the A La Carte menu. The lunch menu is also really decent for the price you pay.
Phil: Yes, but A La Carte/specials only. That hot spicy clay pot…
Address: 403-419 Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9WL
Address: 70-72 Portland St, Manchester M1 4GU