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Eastern promise

If I'm ever asked, 'What's your favourite food?' I say 'Japanese', which is strange, because as husband, P, reminds me, I've only ever been to an authentic Japanese restaurant once in my life, a long time ago.

Siam Thai and Teppan-yaki, Chester (200)
Siam Thai and Teppan-yaki, Chester (200)

If I'm ever asked, 'What's your favourite food?' I say 'Japanese', which is strange, because as husband, P, reminds me, I've only ever been to an authentic Japanese restaurant once in my life, a long time ago.

'Well it was fabulous,' I say defensively. 'You were violently ill afterwards,' he replies. 'I was jetlagged,' I counter, dialling the number for the Siam Thai and Teppan-yaki Restaurant in City Road, Chester.

I wonder what it was I loved so much? It wasn't the saki that was for sure. Perhaps it was the teppanyaki steak cooked in front of us by Japanese chefs; or the silent, enigmatic kimono-clad waitresses gliding by on zori - those lacquered platform flips-flops - or was it the sticky rice and sushi?

I remember feeling so sophisticated as I sat on the tatami mat flooring at the low dining table, watching the chef perform his masterly flourishes - as full of meaning as a Japanese tea ceremony.

'I know what it was,' he said suddenly, breaking the dream. 'We hadn't seen each other for three months and I booked it as a romantic gesture.'

We lapsed into silence as we walked along the canal.

No pressure tonight then. The Siam Thai and Teppan-yaki Restaurant is in the old antiques emporium building, above Hark-ers pub, so we popped in for a drink on the way.

The pub was packed to the trendy rafters and we were lucky to squeeze in at the corner of another couple's table. It soon became apparent that even if we weren't intending to have a romantic night out, they certainly were. They left arm in arm a few minutes before us.

And then, there they were again. Our Thai waitress sat us alongside one another at the teppan grill.

Looking at the menu and wondering where on earth to start, we realised that yes, this is a Japanese restaurant as far as the food is concerned, but the décor is a fusion of east and west, with cream painted walls, stripped wood floors, large Thai objet's d'art dotted about and of course, the Japanese cooking plate - or teppan - right there in front of us.

With Petra and Michael on our left (by this time we were on first name terms) and two lovely Scottish ladies down for the weekend on our right, this was much more upbeat and sociable than the restaurant I remembered all those years ago. Ask me to describe the characteristics of the Japanese nation and I would say reticence and formal manners would be top of the list. (That's probably why I find karaoke such a shocking phenomenon.) But here at the Siam, the friendly openness of the Thai people is a welcome added ingredient.

Ah yes, ingredients. Raw fish being one of them. I like it but accept that it's not to everyone's taste. But even Marks and Spencer's sells sushi take-away nowadays, so it's practically mainstream.

The term 'sushi' actually refers to the rice the fish is served on, whereas sashimi is the general term for the raw fish. There is a huge choice of both at the Siam.

We had the smoked mackerel sushi (delicious) and the tuna (not quite so delicious), both at £3.75 for two pieces each. They came beautifully presented, a cross of seaweed decorating the top of each one but I'm not sure the rice was sweetened and vinegared enough to give it that distinctive sushi flavour.

The little green blob on the side of the plate, or wasabi as it's known, is a member of the cabbage family that has been ground to a paste. It is believed to act as an antidote to food poisoning and that's probably why it was originally served with raw fish. Just a tiniest mouthful on the edge of your chopstick is enough to clear the head, sinuses and any other blocked orifice for at least a week.

We also had a fabulous king prawn tempura (£5.95) and vegetable tempura (£4.95) both with light, fresh batter.

Other delights included the Siam sushi special; 21 pieces of nigiri, maki rolls (rolls of seaweed and rice) and sashimi (£18.95) for those who want to immerse themselves in the whole experience.

And talking of experience, one of the teppanyaki chefs was about to start cooking and boy, had we better pay attention.

Surrounded by his diners, we sat at our granite-topped bars, watching mesmerised as he threw his knives around with abandon, whipped up his seasoning pots, one after another, threw them up into the air, and caught them on top of his hat. We all cheered and clapped. As far as I recall, the skill with the Japanese teppanyaki chef is all in the knife action - on the food that is. This was theatre.

Then he asked us to sit back, sloshed some alcohol on the grill and lit it. The flame shot up towards the ceiling and I felt the heat on the tips of my fingers as I clutched my chilled glass of Chablis.

I'm sure it was well rehearsed, but I don't think it was the centuries-old Japanese tradition being staged in front of us, more the westernised version. But this is Chester after all - not Kyoto - and everyone loved it.

Act III involved eggs and a machete-shaped knife (for the vegetable fried rice), two chefs cooking in tandem, sizzling vegetables and lots of light hearted banter with the diners. Squid was expertly cooked in a matter of moments, rice was placed in bowls and duck breast in barbecue sauce served to another near neighbour. We watched, sipped our drinks and discovered that a) our Scottish friends were disappointed at the lack of non-chain store shops in Chester and b) Michael and Petra had only been together for a month.

Our mains included the beef fillet teriyaki at £18.95 and chicken breast with teppanyaki stir fried noodles (£13.50).

They were both good choices; the beef might not have been kobe - from the incredibly expensive beer and saki-fed cattle in the province of Tajima - but it was as good a fillet steak as I've ever tasted.

What was so lovely about the Siam was the fact that some people were having a romantic dinner for two (even if it wasn't me and my husband); two tourists were enjoying a night out in a new city; and a gang of girls was having a fun hen night. There were racegoers, families, a group celebrating a birthday, as well as old married couples (yes, that was us) and everyone seemed happy.

The atmosphere was relaxed, the décor trendy, the staff obliging - even if English wasn't a strong point with every one of them. I think the best way to describe the Siam Thai and Teppan-Yaki Restaurant is to use that brand new Hollywood proverb: 'You might have enjoyed the film Memoirs of a Geisha, but no-one said it was a true representation of her life.'

And as a close approximation, you would be hard pushed to do better.

For those who would rather eat Thai than Japanese, the Thai part of the restaurant is on the first floor. You should indicate your preference when booking.

Factfile

* Siam Thai and Teppan-Yaki restaurant, City Road, Chester.

* Telephone: 01244 403222 pLunch: 1noon to 3pm; evening: 5pm to 11pm (Sat 11:30pm, Sun 10:30pm)

* Best thing: The showmanship of the chefs, the buzzy atmosphere, and the building itself.

* Worst: Not a good venue if you are a real pudding fan - mainly ice-cream.

* Would suit: Those who like a 'themed' night out.

Cost: We paid just over £70 for sushi, two starters and two main courses and a bottle of Chablis. The wine list is extensive and good value.

 

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