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At the end of 2007, scaffolding and tarpaulins went up on an old building I pass on my way to and from work. I was mildly intrigued to know what was going on behind the tarpaulins and when the building re-emerged a couple of months later, I was very pleased to see the rough-looking old building had turned into what appeared to be a sparkly new restaurant by the name of 'The Orient'.
Whilst my home is in the Midlands, I now work on the Wirral and during the week, I live in a flat on the outskirts of the small Cheshire town of Sandbach. Sandbach is a pretty little 'olde-worlde' kind of place that suffers for being best known for one of the most infamously awful motorway service stations in the country and is sadly less well known as the site of some 9th Century Saxon crosses. If you find yourself stuck in a jam on the M6, it's worth a detour to pop into town and have a look around.
But back to The Orient. Each day when I passed the restaurant I'd developed an almost Pavlovian response. Seeing the restaurant triggered the thought 'Must go there next time hubby is visiting' but despite the urge, the opportunity didn't come around until last week when, faced with an empty fridge, I rang up and booked a table.
How to Find The Orient
Yes, it's tempting to say "Cross the English Channel and keep going" - tempting but not very useful. If you find yourself in Sandbach, the Orient is on Middlewich Road, on the opposite side of the road to the place where you'll find McDonalds, Aldi and the Health Centre and very close to the Cheshire Council building. For parking, during the day you can use the car park opposite although in the evening the parking closest to Aldi is closed so you need to be on the McDonald's car park. Alternatively you can park - as we did - on the waste ground that calls itself the Council's over-spill parking. Anywhere other than Sandbach you might feel a bit nervous to leave your car there are night but Sandbach is the sort of town where someone dropping litter would probably get front page coverage in the local newspaper. And the car park's also behind the police station!
When I'd driven home that night, I had noticed that the restaurant was already looking very busy. I'd also seen a lot of people on the streets of the town and when I got home my husband mentioned that it was the night of the school exam results being announced so maybe people were out celebrating. Either way it seemed a good idea to call ahead to avoid disappointment. When I got through the restaurant I could hardly hear the man on the other end but he assured me that a table for two was no problem at 8.30pm.
I suppose the noise on the phone should have tipped me off that this was not a quiet place to eat. When we opened the front door, the noise hit us like a wall of sound and when they asked if we wanted to sit upstairs or downstairs, we headed for the staircase, thinking it might not be quite so loud up above. Upstairs had ten or so tables, ranging from small tables for two through to large circular 'banquet' tables seating up to eight or ten people. The smaller square and oblong tables were bare wood whilst the round tables had tablecloths.
With the exception of one small carved Buddha head downstairs, there's nothing to indicate that this is an oriental restaurant. There are no cheesy carvings on the walls, no rich fabrics or waiters in 'native' dress. There's not even any twinkly music to make you think of places far away. The music is LOUD and distinctly middle of the road - far from trendy, but easily recognised hum-along music. I'm sure the acoustics aren't helped by every surface in the place being hard - windows, walls, ceiling, floor, all seem to be designed to maximise the sound-bounce and ensure even the slightest whisper is magnified to a howl. I got the impression that if things didn't work out for the current management, you could close the restaurant for a few days and reopen as an Italian - Indian - Burger Joint - French restaurant without making too many changes.
How about our meal?
We took our seats and ordered drinks - a diet coke for me, a pint of bitter for my husband who'd spent all day decorating and so earned the right to be driven home like the hero he is. My drink was tiny - a slender glass with far too many ice-cubes. Thanks for the style but I didn't appreciate the meanness of the drink and when it ran out, I uncharacteristically asked for tap water for my next drink because I was sulking.
The menu was an odd mix of Chinese and Thai dishes with the usual set menus and a la carte options. On the set menus they had a Hong Kong banquet (presumably Chinese), a Thai Banquet, an Imperial Banquet (though I'm not sure WHOSE empire that covered with a mix of Chinese, Thai and even Vietnamese all thrown in) and finally a Vegetarian banquet. As we're both trying not to eat too much at the moment, and as only the veggy banquet would have given me much to choose from, we decided to go a la carte instead. In view of the slow service, that was probably a good idea - we might still be waiting for our final course a week later.
We ordered soup to start - no Tom Yup soup unfortunately so we settled for Hot and Sour. Then we decided to share a portion of Thai fishcakes, and follow that with a portion tofu in red curry sauce and king prawns with ginger and spring onions. So all in all a bit of a mix of the Chinese and Thai.
The soup came relatively quickly - mine was vegetarian, hubby's had a few bits of critter suspended in the thick soup. For me, it wasn't really as hot or as sour as I'd have liked - I want a H&S soup to be so vinegary that it catches me at the back of the throat, makes my eyes water and has me coughing like an old man on 40 a day. This was a bit too mild for me and a bit too gelatinous. Though that's not such a bad thing as hubby was 'upgrading' from his normal rather bland 'crab and sweetcorn' soup and a really good H&S would probably have put him in hospital. The fishcakes followed shortly after the soup had been cleared away. I was surprised that they were quite light in colour and texture - often Thai fishcakes can be quite dark and rather rubbery. Instead of a chilli sauce, this came with a small dish of finely diced cucumber floating on top of what seemed to be lemon juice. The fishcakes were delicious and extremely juicy.
Up to this point, all was going pretty well. We were starting to get used to the noise and to hum along with the odd bit of Brian Adams (yep, I kid you not - it's not exactly traditional, is it?) blasting out of the speakers, but as our tolerance of noise grew, our tolerance of the temperature was dipping fast. The air con was just too fierce. I didn't particularly want to sit there with my coat on but I was tempted. The waitress brought us hot bowls for our main course and then disappeared. As tray after tray of food came up the stairs and none of it was for us, the bowls soon got stone cold. Partly because I wanted a hot bowl (for my food and to warm my hands) and equally because I wanted to 'make a point', I asked the waiter to bring us new bowls. These too were only barely tepid by the time the food finally arrived. I don't like to be rushed but this was getting silly. I was ready to eat the table.
When it arrived, the food was good. The portion of rice was a touch on the mean side as we'd not actually specified we only wanted one rather than two but I can't believe it was meant to be a portion for two. Even for one person it wasn't generous. The red curry had a lovely sauce - not too hot but very tasty with a good balance of spices - although there were only about 8 pieces of tofu in the entire thing. When I order a tofu curry I perhaps rather naively expect that it might contain slightly more than just sauce and a few lumps of tofu - but perhaps that's because when I cook, I throw in half the contents of the vegetable drawer. The prawns with ginger and spring onion were rather better - plenty of prawns, chunks of ginger so large they were more like vegetables than seasoning, and more massive pieces of spring onion than I've ever seen in one place. The quantities were fine - not too much, not too little - but by the time the food finally came, we'd almost passed the point of hunger though we ate every last scrap of food.
By the time we'd finished our main courses, the idea of a dessert was just a step too far - we'd been in the restaurant for such a long time that we were ready to head home and relax. The bill came to £37 for the two of us which was pretty much in line with my expectations. A bit high for Chinese, a bit low for Thai so since we had a mix of the two, the bill was where it should have been. With a tip on top, we paid just over £20 a head which included two pints of beer and a single rather mean coke. Actually I really should get out of the habit of automatic tipping because frankly the service really didn't justify it.
Would I go back? I'm not sure. I liked the food but the noise, chill and slow service might well make it a lot more likely that I'd order a take-away and eat at home. The restaurant has been open long enough that I think they should have ironed out the wrinkles in the service and environment by now but since it seems to be busy almost every time I pass, it's not doing too badly.