Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Hungry Gecko

January seems to be the month we go to supperclubs. It was this time last year that we made the trip up to Whitefield for The Spice Club and this went down as not only one of the best meals of last year but one of the best nights out full stop. We loved it.

So why we waited for a whole year to pass to book onto the next supperclub is beyond me, possibly because the one we really wanted to go to - The Hungry Gecko - hadn't been running over the summer months to allow proprietor Jackie Kearney to focus on her street food venture.

You might remember Jackie as one of the finalists from Masterchef 2011. She is one of my favourite contestants and she showed us all you can still get to the final of Masterchef as a vegetarian; I especially enjoyed the episode where she cooked up a storm for the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi who was very impressed with her understanding of vegetarian flavours. I was very pleased to find out she lived in Manchester and that I would therefore get to eat her food once in a while!

My first taste of one of Jackie's creations was at the Manchester Picnic - her Sweet and Sour Popcorn Tofu did not disappoint! Jackie is passionate not only about vegetarian cooking but also street food, something Bailey and I have grown particularly interested in since our visit to a Guerilla Eats event.

All this had only made me want to attend one of Jackie's Supperclubs even more, so when our friends Jeni and Doyle told us they'd booked onto one, we did not delay in cancelling our previous plans and booking on ourselves!

Even though Bailey and I had been excited all week, even we couldn't have predicted how happy we would be to arrive at Jackie's front door following what we thought would be an easy walk from Dulcimer only a few hundred yards up the road, but what was in fact a very unpleasant face-numbingly cold walk in icy winds! Fortunately Jackie's home was wonderfully warm and cosy, also it really was my dream home. I would recommend a visit to the Hungry Gecko not only to foodies but to property perverts also. Jackie's husband (who served us brilliantly throughout the evening) was very happy to tell us about all the amazing rennovations he has done to the place but that is another story. We were led to our table which was beautifully laid out in a gorgeous dining room adjoining the kitchen so you could see what was going on.

We were promptly treated to an amuse bouche of Panipuri. I was very excited about this as I actually didn't know what this was until the other week when we were watching Madhur Jaffrey's Curry Nation - a show we are really enjoying at the minute. As soon as I saw Madhur crunching down on these little globes of delight I said to myself, I need to get me some of that. Jackie's Panipuri was served with tamarind, chilli and chaat masala and tasted beautifully fresh. You bit through the crispy puri to find soft, delicate fillings with a real zingy hit of flavours. It really did do the job of waking up the mouth, or should I say amusing the bouche, for the starter.

The starter in question was Kedgeree, but this was kedgeree with a twist. A vegetarian version starring mushrooms in the place of fish, it was presented in the form of two croquettes topped with dainty poached quails eggs (although the little rascals wobbled off before I could take a picture).

The panko coating on the croquettes was perfectly crunchy and the rice on the inside well cooked and nicely spiced. Given my inability to master the most rudimentary task of poaching an egg, I am always impressed by any perfectly poached egg. However seeing the tiny quails eggs ooze gorgeous runny yolk was a particularly impressive sight to behold. In my excitement I forgot to squeeze the lemon wedge onto my croquettes until one of the other diners commented on how great the lemon went with the dish. Silly me. I still think I might have liked a little drizzle of a sauce or maybe a bigger egg to add a bit more moisture to the croquettes.

The main course was another I'd been very much looking forward to - Kimchi Noodle Soup. I absolutely love a good kimchi and we have been getting through these cold wintry nights by preparing many a warming noodle soup in the Good Gobble kitchen. After the two small and delicate first courses I wasn't expecting the big, bold bowl of brightly-coloured soup we were presented with. This was not a soup for the faint hearted - the kimchi, which Jackie had fermented in her own kitchen, was absolutely badass.

The way the flavours of the soup developed in your mouth was very interesting. With the first spoonful you were hit with delightful Asian flavours. The heat started to kick in two or three seconds later and escalated with every mouthful but retained its flavour throughout. A very good home-cooked soup.

Both Doyle and I were very proud to make it to the bottom of our bowls - part of the fun being watching Doyle pick up his bowl and slurp up the last drops of badass broth.

As we told Jackie after the meal, we were pleased that she hadn't chickened out of making her soup so spicy, as so many places do despite advertising their food as hot. This was a soup to get your nose running and your heart racing. 

We were really lucky to have been recommended a bottle of Secret de Viu Manent Viognier to compete with the strong flavours of the kimchi by our friend David who works at the nearby Oddbins on Wilbraham Road - this actually cut through the flaming heat and reset your tastebuds ready for another mouthful better even than water did! I really recommend anyone who is going to another of Jackie's January supper clubs to get yourselves down to see David at Oddbins for a bottle of this.

The pickles and the Tofu Seaweed Cakes that accompanied the soup were also excellent. Bailey doesn't normally like tofu and said he could have eaten about ten of these. They were great on their own or when dipped into the broth.

The Raspberry Lassi Sorbet that followed the fiery main course was just the ticket. It was a creamy, sharp and refreshing way to cleanse the palate and I loved the tiny little pearls of fruity flavour that were on top - not too sure what they were but I can assure you they were very nice!

Next up we were served a dessert that according to Jackie's blog was inspired by a hot brownie / cold ice cream combo that blew her mind in a Kathmandu restaurant. Beforehand we were thinking this would be pretty good. A brownie is a brownie. It's a safe food that everyone likes. It rarely disappoints but it also never excels itself... Well this one did! It was amazing - a little square of happiness and everything on the plate was fabulous right down to the little drizzles on the plate, which I scraped clean. The texture of the brownie was a source of debate as it lacked the 'goo' that people often associate with the perfect brownie, and was more of a dense, dark, crumbly affair - we mostly agreed that we didn't miss the goo as this was absolutely beautiful just as it was. It reminded me of the brownie I had at The Wig and Pen. This was the perfect dessert for Bailey who loves hot and cold together (he insists on having cold custard on his hot puds, the pervert) - this delivered for him not only on actual temperature but also from the hint of chilli in the brownie a touch we felt tied Jackie's dessert beautifully with the spicy main course.

I was feeling a bit glum that the meal was over so was very pleased to be offered a cup of Jackie's perfect Chai Tea and even more excited when presented with a beautiful plate of delicious little biscuits. A lovely end to a gorgeous evening.

Bailey and I often talk about starting our own supperclub but what terrifies us is not only the thought of giving our food to strangers, but what a worry it would be trying to make sure people had a good time. The Hungry Gecko was brilliant in both these ways - it really was a rip-roaringly good evening, I have to admit to becoming rowdy on several occasions, howling with laughter and feeling thoroughly relaxed and content throughout. This was all thanks to the atmosphere created by the nicely laid tables, intimate lighting, carefully chosen music (that always seemed to magically match the mood of each stage of the evening) and the warm welcome we received. 

We did think of one thing we thought could have made the evening even better - if Jackie herself had done a brief introduction at the beginning of the night - maybe a bit of information about herself (seeing as she's a bit of a celeb and all!), some of the fascinating stories behind her dishes, something to get to know her by etc. Although we did get to chat to Jackie at the end, she is such a lovely lady that we would have liked to hear from her at the start as well! It's the opportunity to speak to the chef and learn about them by being in their home that makes the supperclub experience all the more special than going to a restaurant.

We had a great time at The Hungry Gecko and were very pleased when Jackie told us she is going to continue to fly the flag for exciting vegetarian street food and is currently on the lookout for her own premises! If her food and house are anything to go by, it will be a beautiful eatery with fabulous food and we will be there with bells on as soon as she opens! Thanks to our hosts for such a memorable evening! 

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