Last Friday, I had a sunny afternoon off while my wife was at work. I was lazing in the garden, clad in an old T-shirt and a slightly grubby pair of shorts, when I was struck by a flash of romance.
What would be better, I thought, than for Erica to come home to a spotless house and an enormous bunch of flowers?
So I sent her an oblique text message promising a 'surprise' and set about the tidying. I'd just put a load of washing on when I got a nosebleed. It wasn't much of a nosebleed but I thought it best to sit down for a while. After all, a big bunch of flowers in a moderately clean house is still a nice surprise, right?
My nosebleed stopped with just enough time left to hang the washing out to dry, change out of my grubby shorts and blood-stained T-shirt and pick Erica up from work - stopping on the way to buy some flowers.
What a wonderful husband I am, I thought, as I slipped my bare feet into flip-flops and stepped out of the back door with the washing.
There was a gust of wind, a slam of door and a click of Yale lock .
It's always difficult to know how we'll react in certain un-pleasant situations - for example, being suddenly and unexpectedly locked out of the house. I handled it rather well. My car keys, luckily, were in my pocket, so while I had to knock on a few neighbours' doors to find some suitable driving shoes (well, walking boots actually - thank you, John), at least I would be in time to pick Erica up from work - and she had a key to the front door.
So it came to pass that Erica's promised 'surprise' was that she left her office after a hard week's work to see the father of her unborn child wearing a blood-stained T-shirt, grubby shorts, sopping wet socks and somebody else's walking boots, hiding in the bushes opposite to avoid being seen by any of her colleagues. And no flowers in sight.
To make up for it, I took her out for a meal at MD's. Once I'd got changed, that is.
By day, it is the quaint-sounding Katie's Tea Rooms - but by night it is a classy continental restaurant. I wonder if, in the style of prohibition-era speakeasies, there's a lever somewhere in the back which they pull at 5pm every day. The lights dim, the tables flip over, the pictures on the wall revolve and the transformation is complete. Whatever happens, it's convincing - the combination of the décor and the weather gave the evening a real Mediterranean feel.
From our table, we could watch crowds of sun-drenched revellers making their increasingly merry way down Watergate Street. As a Yorkshireman, I view sunshine with suspicion but it really was a glorious evening.
The menu was a manageable size, augmented by a large specials board. A decent proportion of the main courses were vegetarian options, much to Erica's delight.
The place was about a third full when we get there but quickly filled up - it was cosy without quite being claustrophobic. The waiting staff buzzed around and I was so busy nosing at other people's dishes, I had to ask for more time to look at the menu. We both chose the a la carte rather than the reasonably-priced table d'hote - there's also an early evening special offer which is even better value.
The food on offer was a mixture of British and continental - I started off with pate, toast and chutney, a country pub staple, while Erica went for fancy foreign bruschetta.
While they differed in origin, they had one thing in common: They were enormous. My pate was smooth and flavoursome, beautifully contrasted by a tangy chutney. The toast, while daunting in volume, turned out to be light and crispy.
The same went for Erica's garlic ciabatta, topped with cubes of fresh tomato. She lapped it up but I thought the topping lacked a little depth of flavour, though the bread itself was spot-on.
Between courses, I took a trip to the gents'. I say 'trip' - 'epic journey' might be more appropriate. Up two narrow flights of stairs, through a large empty tearoom that seemed to occupy most of the Row, past an upright piano (I managed to resist) and through a couple of doors - by the time I'd got there, I wished I'd tied one end of a ball of twine to my chair. By the time I'd made it back down, the main courses were there.
I'd been looking forward to my halibut steak since I looked at the menu on the internet. And it
didn't disappoint. It was flaky, tender and tasty, with crisp skin and a sharp lemon dressing, complemented by a bowl of fresh vegetables and new potatoes. I was in halibut heaven.
But as soon as I'd started to enjoy it, it was gone. My feeling of loss was compounded by a look across the table, where Erica was tucking in to a truly mountainous dish of penne in tomato sauce. It was a welcome twist on a veggie staple - fresh carrots, peas, brocolli, peppers and onions adding flavour and variety (not to mention bulk). The freshness of the vegetables throughout the meal was a real high point.
Anyone would have struggled with such a volume of pasta but as it was competing for abdominal space with a 17-week-old foetus, something had to give. Erica called it a day after managing about half but her leftovers could have comfortably made another meal.
Feeling hard done-by, I consoled myself with a large cheese-board while Erica, understandably jaded from her adventures on Mount Penne, finished up with a light lemon sorbet. The dessert menu seemed to be the
same as for the daytime tea rooms, which spoiled the Mediterranean atmosphere a bit.
In fact, on closer inspection, some other things felt a bit out of place. For example, a table at the side of the room had the day's newspapers laid out for customers, next to a sideboard bearing a small selection of paperback books. Such touches are welcome when enjoying afternoon tea and scones but slightly incongruous when sitting down for a three-course continental meal.
Having said that, it would offer an easy way out of a disastrous blind date - no-one would fail to get the message if their dining companion started reading Th e Secret Diary of Adrian Mole between courses.
By the time I'd finished my satisfying cheese and biscuits - the stilton was a highlight - and Erica her sorbet, which had a wonderful fresh sharpness to it, the sun had gone away and the revellers were beyond merry. All that remained for us to do was pay the reasonable bill, pick our way through the crowds and head home.
Now, where did I put those keys. . .
MD’s, 38 Watergate Street, Chester
Prices (for two, three courses plus coffee): Food £35.15; drinks £9.85.
Best thing: A tie between the amiable atmosphere and the freshness of the vegetables.
Worst thing: Incongruous tea-room leftovers tend to spoil the mood a bit.
Would suit: Anyone who likes good, honest, fresh food and a lively ambience.
Wouldn’t suit: Anyone with a weak bladder who struggles with stairs.