Where the hell am I? Manchester is surreal enough at the best of times, but with Vermilion, the city's newest, largest and most ambitious restaurant, I have every reason to suspect I have fallen through a rift in the space-time continuum.
I am in a cab travelling east, through unprepossessing industrial estates, past gasworks and warehouses, before pulling up outside a three-storey building glowing disco-crimson from within. It is here that Iqbal Ahmed OBE (with his son Manzur) has just opened a £4.5m Thai restaurant, handily located – for him – right next to his Seamark seafood wholesaling warehouse.
A good proportion of that £4.5m must have been given to renowned Portuguese architect Miguel Cancio Martins, who designed last century's hottest Parisian nightspots, Buddha Bar and Man Ray. Again, Martins has created an upstairs bar overlooking a vast dining-room, with much use of Buddha heads, gold mosaics and orbs of coloured light clinging to the ceiling. Around the bar are six cocoons – semi-secluded lounging pods in which Manchester's most fashionable can recline like patricians at an ancient Roman convivium.
There is only one thing missing: people. The bar alone can hold 300, which means there is currently room for... 300. Nobody wants to be the early nerd, including me, so I step down the golden spiral stairs to the dining-room instead. It's another striking, glamorous room with a varnished timber ceiling, black lacquered floor and glossy red tree trunks gathered around a central tower layered with glowing Buddha heads like petits fours on a cake-stand. At 8pm on a Thursday, there are more Buddha heads than diners, however, with around 20 of the 200 seats taken.
Chef Chumpol Jangprai had a senior post with the globally successful Blue Elephant group before putting this greatest-hits menu in place for Vermilion. It looks big, but there are few surprises, running through classic Thai favourites from tom yam koong (spicy prawn soup) to crisp mee krob noodles, Thai fish cakes, and the usual array of curries.
The food is perfectly competent and unremarkable, which only serves to make the décor seem more hysterical. Best is pla yang ka min (£8), a simple, pleasing grill of skewered marinated salmon and wild trout fillets, lightly fragrant with fresh turmeric – a rare treat. I like the silky, juicy quality of marinated chicken fillets wrapped in pandan leaf (£8), and the tentative heat of the green chicken curry (£8.50), although the chicken itself is bland. Small spring rolls (£6.50) are cold in the middle, while a banana blossom, prawn and chicken salad (£8.50) is overpowered by strong, sweet, sticky sauce. Another promising dish of stir-fried rock lobster with fresh peppercorns (£18.80) lacks any sizzle and, again, the produce is bland. My biggest problem is that the overwhelming sweetness in most of the dishes is not balanced by any chilli heat or sourness.
The heavy-hitting wine list includes a range of completely unsuitable Bordeaux, but I find a 2006 New Zealand Huia Pinot Noir for £38 that is silky and fruity enough to cope with the sweetness. Dessert seems redundant.
If it were a buzzing Saturday night, this place could be great fun, but empty, it has an air of folly. I feel sorry for the Iqbals as I hear one diner proclaim, "I don't eat chilli, coriander or lemongrass." Apparently the chef is already working on a new fusion menu, with such things as salmon soufflé, caviar, and entrecôte with Thai flavours, to attract a more Bordeaux-drinking crowd.
I fear my instincts about the space-time continuum might be right, but at least if the rift heals and this anomaly simply vanishes, Mr Ahmed will have a very groovy warehouse for his frozen prawns.
SCORES: 1-9 STAY HOME AND COOK, 10-11 NEEDS HELP, 12 OK, 13 PLEASANT ENOUGH, 14 GOOD, 15 VERY GOOD, 16 CAPABLE OF GREATNESS, 17 SPECIAL, CAN'T WAIT TO GO BACK, 18 HIGHLY HONOURABLE, 19 UNIQUE AND MEMORABLE, 20 AS GOOD AS IT GETS
Vermilion, Hulme Hall Lane, Lord North Street, Manchester, tel: 0161 202 0055
Lunch, Monday-Friday; dinner, Monday-Saturday; brunch, Sunday. Around £110 for two for dinner, including wine and service
Second helpings: More Thai temptations
855 Fulham Road, London SW6, tel: 020 7371 7600
This Parsons Green establishment goes beyond the usual Thai suspects to more exciting options such as soft-shell crab and duck confit with lemongrass and tamarind
8 Regent Street, Chapel Allerton, Leeds, tel: 0113 237 0141
Owner/chef Ban Kaewkraikhot opened in Leeds in 2002 and quickly converted locals with her Thai fish cakes, pandan chicken and crisp mee krob noodles
Chapel Walks, off Cross Street, Manchester, tel: 0161 832 8342
Pre-Vermilion, Chaophraya raised the bar for Thai dining in Manchester. The food is the real deal, from the Thai fisherman's soup to grilled seabass in banana leaves
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