Everyone deserves a second chance. Our first visit to the ThaiChi had not been a success but it was with a feeling of optimism that we returned to this newish restaurant on Chester's City Road bridge.
In truth, the last occasion was a bit of a disaster. Quite simply, we didn't get what we ordered.
However, we were charged only for the drinks and left with a mixture of bewilderment and some sympathy. The waitresses were charming and the soup we did have was excellent enough to hint at possible delights to come.
The ThaiChi, providing 'a fusion of Thai and Chinese cuisine', is housed in the premises of the former Chinese restaurant, the Po Hing. This place had a loyal and regular clientele, all fans of popular 'meeter and greeter' George, a real character. Unadventurous and old-fashioned their approach may have been, but it is still a hard act to follow in the oriental menu market.
And this is now a more competitive field than ever. Thai restaurants are everywhere; some replacing Chinese eateries, others offering 'eat as much as you like' buffets. Even the best-known of Chester's Chinese restaurants has gone 'oriental', presumably to broaden its appeal for changing tastes.
Of course, the 'fusion' at the ThaiChi does not indicate an eclectic new hybrid of Far East cuisine. The menu's Thai and Chinese dishes sit neatly alongside each other. The fairly extensive card offers a Chinese banquet, a Thai one plus a feast featuring a selection of both.
But the fact that this is actually a Thai establishment is confirmed immediately by the friendly and attentive young ladies who greeted us. Impeccably dressed in colourful traditional Thai costume they seem to operate in pairs, rushing around with a fixed smile, ensuring your glass is never even half-empty. In fact, I don't think I've been quite as smitten since I flew long-haul with Singapore Airlines!
True to the spirit, we ordered a mixture of Thai and Chinese, siding slightly with the hosts.
The one highlight of our last visit had been the hot and sour soup. This was a wonderful dense broth dominated by the full flavour of the distinctive Shitake mushroom.
But this time I chose a hot and sour prawn soup, which proved to be an excellent bowlful of freshness with the lemongrass, ginger and chilli complementing the king prawns with true zing. My wife's chicken and sweetcorn was not as good, dominated more by the sweetness of corn rather than a good, earthy chicken stock. Still, that's probably the Thai way!
Next we sampled Thai fish cakes with sweet chilli sauce (good but not exceptional) and our old favourite, salt and chilli ribs. These were not crispy, baked or fried Chinese-style but were a braised variety, with long marinating ensuring fall-off-the-bone tenderness. It was a perfect portion, nicely on the small side and enhanced by crunchy chilli and garlic.
The preparation of my steamed sea bass main course ensured a timely break during which regular apologies were proffered for the delay.
But we enjoyed lingering over our drinks. My wife's glass of house Volandas sauvignon blanc, chosen from an extensive list, was crisp and generous. The waitress was persuasive when I ordered a second beer. But rather than opting for Singha, the quintessential Thai beer, I chose its less assertive compatriot, the nicely hopped Chang. These, plus Chinese Tsingtao and the much-loved Tiger beer from Singapore, all offer a much better bet than the keg smooth-flow lurking on the bar pump.
We then both enjoyed our carefully and lovingly prepared main dishes. My wife's green curry, the chicken variety, arrived with the freshness of its ingredients proudly displayed, a large sliced whole red chilli standing on its end amid the excellent creamy sauce.
My steamed bass, with lime, onion and garlic, garnished with coriander, was fabulous, the fish flavoursome and firm. But the sauce, supposedly garlic and chilli, was a strong and sour affair, tasty but almost overpowering. And what were those fruit stones?
The waitress was delighted to think we had room for a sweet (fritters, coconut creams, fruit and ice creams) when I asked to see the menu again. But we didn't want dessert, I was keen only to discover what had been the dominant ingredient in that sauce.
I pointed out the stones. 'Ah, tamarind,' she said. Now, I know tamarind is used in Thai cooking but - I might be wrong here - I thought it came in a pod. Anyway, there's no tamarind in the description of this dish. She then quickly scoured the menu to find a fish dish that featured a heavy input of tamarind, which was hardly the point.
But this wasn't the end of the matter and she soon returned with a colleague. 'No, not tamarind, plum!' That made sense. But there's no mention of plums on the menu either.
'It is the chef,' she gestured cheerily. What does that mean? Is the chef unable to read? Is he flam-boyantly eccentric and does he just interpret the menu as he sees fit?
Dining here is certainly an interesting experience and, yes, it is largely an enjoyable one.
On our way out I was presented with a 20% discount card. 'VIP customer!'
So another return visit is certainly possible.
Factfile > > >
* ThaiChi, 27 City Road, Chester. Tel: 01244 326596.
* Open: noon to 3pm; Sun-Thurs, 5pm to midnight; Fri-Sat, 5pm to 2am.
* Three-course set lunch £6.95, express lunch £4.95; early evening three-course set meal (5 to 7pm) £8.95.
* Soups: Chicken and sweet corn (£2.95), hot and sour prawn (£4.50).
* Starters: Thai fish cakes (£4.95), salt and chilli ribs (£3.95).
* Main courses: Steamed bass with lime, chilli, garlic and coriander (£10.95), Thai green chicken curry (£7.95), fried rice (£2.50).
* Drinks: Two glasses of Chilean house white wine (£7), one bottle of Tiger beer (£2.70), one Chang beer (£2.70).
* Total for two: £50.15.
* Best thing: Oh-so fresh ingredients, fairly inexpensive menu and attentive service.
* Worst thing: The potential for surprises - but even this is fun!
* Would suit: Those who can't make their mind up between Chinese and Thai.