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The Siam Orchid Vietnamese Menu Review (and other snappy titles)

Emma Unsworth yearns to sing for her supper in Chinatown

Published on September 9th 2009.

The Siam Orchid Vietnamese Menu Review (and other snappy titles)

The term ‘hidden gem’ rarely whets my appetite. In fact, I hear it so often it makes me want to boil my own head. Besides, surely even the nookiest and cranniest of cities can only secrete so many so-called ‘hidden gems’ before they start spilling out onto the street for everyone to see. Things could get messy. Or at least inaccurate. That said, I’d like to sneak in just one more, if I may...

The rare beef soup felt like a remedy for the crap things in life. Barely tender onion and flat transparent noodles nestled beneath the thin surface. This soup had an added medicinal tang from a liberal dose of fennel. As the beautiful bowlful steamed up into my face, the distant sounds of tuneless amateur cover versions lulled me into a sudden oneness with the world.

To wring out the metaphor, the Siam Orchid is a crudely cut, brash flash of tack on the eastern edge of Chinatown. It’s primarily a decent enough Thai restaurant with a karaoke club, the Orchid Lounge, upstairs – which explains why the door doesn’t look like a restaurant’s at all. It’s usually decorated with a couple of burly bouncers.

I’ve always thought these gents were missing a trick. A more effective way of weeding out potential ne’er-do-wells would be to ask them what they’re planning on singing, rather than just looking at their shoes. ‘Sweet Caroline’, ‘American Pie’, anything by Robbie Williams or Chumbawamba – these are the choices of drug dealers, ASBO owners, and general homicidal maniacs. Stevie Wonder, Abba, Take That, on the other hand – God-fearing, law-abiding, garden variety exhibitionists. Just a thought.

Once you’ve cleared the entrance and ascended the few steps to the first floor, the little restaurant exudes a conflicting mix of energy and calm. Each of the 20 or so tables is decorated with an orchid in a vase, and a laminated menu. There’s the fizzle of fluorescence in the air, amid the trickle of several wall-mounted water features. We’re seated by the wall, beneath one particularly enthusiastic water feature, which spits regularly on me throughout the meal. The rest of the time it sounds like a small boy weeing. If I’d been on a date, it could have been a talking point. As it was, I’d taken along my old university friend – the very Yorkshire Alison, whose own mother recently told her she eats like a horse.

We’re here to test out the Siam Orchid’s new Vietnamese menu – which, despite the large advertising banner on the front of the building, you have to ask to see. It isn’t large, just two sides of (laminated) A5, comprising a small selection of starters and soups. We were eating at 8pm on a Wednesday evening. In retrospect, this menu makes a better option for lunch. We chose Vietnamese starters and soups, and then bulked up the meal with mains from the traditional Thai menu: King Prawn with Sweet Basil (£8.90) and Beef Red Curry (£6.95) with a side of Coconut Rice (£2.50).

Wine fanatics tell you to drink Riesling with Oriental food. There wasn’t any Riesling on the wine list, so we chose a bottle of Chablis (£18.50). We listened carefully for the sirens of the Wine Police approaching. Nothing. Once again, we’d got away with it.

We started with Vietnamese Spring Rolls (£4) and a Vietnamese Pancake (£5). The spring rolls were richer than the Cantonese variety, stuffed with rice noodles, shitake mushrooms and delicately spiced minced pork. Dipped in the cloying goo of some sweet chilli sauce, they were ridiculously comforting.

The Vietnamese Pancake was a huge crescent of folded batter, flopping over the end of a square plate. The filling was light this time: steamed chicken and king prawns, sliced onion and spring onion, chopped coriander, beansprouts and lettuce. It was fresh and wholesome, but needed a good swoosh in the thin chilli-flecked sauce that accompanied it to avoid being beigely bland.

But it was the soup that blew us away. We chose Hot and Spicy Beef Noodle Soup and Rare Sliced Beef Soup (both £5.50) from a list of about five, where chicken, prawn and vegetable were also available. In both soups, the broth base tasted as though it had been days in the making. The result was fragrant and hearty, not a bit gelatinous or fatty. The meat in the spicy soup was wafer-thin, and the chilli kick was a warm, loving one: the perfect cold or hangover cure – if it wouldn’t shift Swine Flu, it would at least shift Wine Flu.

The rare beef soup felt similarly like a remedy for the crap things in life. Barely tender onion and flat transparent noodles nestled beneath the thin surface. This soup had an added medicinal tang from a liberal dose of fennel. As the beautiful bowlful steamed up into my face, the distant sounds of tuneless cover versions lulled me into a sudden oneness with the world. My only criticism is that the beef wasn’t rare. It was medium. Unless of course I misunderstood the definition and the ‘rare’ of the menu signified ‘uncommon’ rather than ‘lightly cooked’. As far as I’m aware, Siam Orchid seems one of a select few places in the North West where you can get Vietnamese food in Manchester, so if that’s the case, fair do’s.

That’s it. May the words ‘hidden gem’ henceforth be banished. They can join the likes of ‘fondue’ and ‘Fanny Cradock’ in the burnt, bone-strewn desert of Food Review Exile.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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18 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

SteveSeptember 9th 2009.

Can't wait Megan!!

MC hammeredSeptember 9th 2009.

I love this place, for Thai anywway. I don't know why Chaophraya gets all the plaudits.

AvoSeptember 9th 2009.

Have you guys seen the authentic Vietnamese street side food stall outside Tampopo at The Triangle? I think it looks cool in a kitsch kind of way!

JohnSeptember 9th 2009.

I take it back, that's a US restaurant

Eric JacksonSeptember 9th 2009.

Emma was always class, and this proves it. The Siam Orchid really is a gem (hidden or otherwise). The missus and I have gone there for our special pre-Christmas shopping treat for the last 10 years.

mouth breatherSeptember 9th 2009.

Bootylicious has more words than you think it does. best avoided.

SteveSeptember 9th 2009.

We could do with a proper Vietnamese restaurant in Manchester though.....

MeganSeptember 9th 2009.

Being Vietnamese myself I can say I won't be going back to this menu anytime soon! I found the dishes to have to resemblance to Vietnamese cuisine at all. Espescially the spicy beef noddle (Bun Bo Hue), which meant to have a very distinctive smell and flavour, however, what I found is a bowl of broth filled with chilli and sesame oil flavours. Which is quite amusing as Bun Bo Hue does not have sesame have one of the ingredients. The springrolls tasted nothing but thick pastry and spring onion. Vietnamese pancake is very bland (as Emma also pointed out). All in all, I'm still saving for that Vietnamese restaurant I've always dream of - watch this space!

LauraSeptember 9th 2009.

This used to be my favourite Thai restaurant in Manchester, but it went seriously downhill a couple of years ago. I've not been back since but I might give it another go to sample the vietnamese delights. Good excuse for post-meal karaoke too!

JohnSeptember 9th 2009.

I believe it should be http://www.siamorchid.net/

nambypambysouthernerSeptember 9th 2009.

Vietnamese food is alive and well in Northenden. Think its called the Dalat. Busy and cheap ... why on eart should I share this information with you city dwellers

SteveSeptember 9th 2009.

Went to Dalat in Northenden of Friday evening...pretty good food..not sure about the quality of the chicken used though.....looked suspiciously white and lacked texture....cheap reformed muck...shame really as the rest was great.

MC HammeredSeptember 9th 2009.

* 'anyway', just so you know that I can spell.

AnonymousSeptember 9th 2009.

On Oldham Rd, opposite to the Royal Mail Dep, there is a vetnamese food shop, as far as I remember (sorry: it is not a restaurant).

AvoSeptember 9th 2009.

I think the correct address is http://www.siamorchidrestaurant.co.uk

SausagesSeptember 9th 2009.

Wine police are wrong: Chablis an excellent choice. Keep it up rebel woman.

AeronSeptember 9th 2009.

Agreed Steve. I had some friends visit from 'down souf' recently who specifically asked if we could go to a Vietnamese restaurant (they've visited the country). I was surprised when I couldn't find one. Having just returned from France, where I sampled a magical Vietnamese feast, I now know what I'm missing. (Note to self: Never sing Sweet Caroline in the Orchid Lounge again!)

AeronSeptember 9th 2009.

Thanks Avo. I haven't but will certainly take a look now.

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