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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Jackie Kearney's Hungry Gecko Vegan Supper Club Pops Up at Tampopo, Manchester

I feel obliged to preface the following post about vegan food with the disclaimer that I do in fact eat quite a lot of meat. Despite my essentially carnivorous nature, it would be the dairy I really missed if I were to embark upon a vegan diet - yes, no bacon would be terrible, but no cheese, butter or eggs? Still, I do love all veg and all pulses, so I was interested to see if Jackie Kearney, Masterchef finalist and otherwise known as The Hungry Gecko, would be able to make me forget the absence of farmyard favourites at her pop up supper club at Tampopo in the Corn Exchange this week.

The first interesting event of the night was getting there bang on the start time and finding a lengthy queue outside. People don't generally queue for vegan food, but with both nights fully sold out there was clearly something of a buzz about Jackie's take on it; indeed, the fact that the accompanying book, Vegan Street Food, has sold out on Amazon is testimony either to the current enthusiasm for all things plant-based, or Jackie's ability to make such things sexy. The evening was also great value at £20 a head, starting with a lychee fizz (essentially a glass of Prosecco with a big fat lychee in the bottom), followed by canapes and a series of dishes to be shared at the communal tables, supper club style. First up was a tray of Pani Puri Pops, joyous little puffy orbs filled with a mild, creamy filling of lentils and vegetables, swiftly followed by the swaggeringly spicy Tom Yum Shots, served with sticky rice balls to calm their fieriness. The Thai Style BBQ Tofu Skewers came served with a peanut and cucumber dip that I greedily spooned all over my plate; the texture of tofu is not for me (I've tried and failed many times to like it) but the flavours were excellent and I can't pretend I didn't have a second one when the platter came round again.

The mains started with a Balinese Seaweed Salad and some amazing Smoky Tofu Murtabak - fried pancakes which were crispy on the outside and meltingly exciting on the inside. If anything wins me over to bean curd, it's these fellas. The Jackfruit Rendang with lemongrass, coconut and chilli was similarly revelatory - I am very partial to mango and other fruit items in curry, and this little bowl of tender young fruit in a rich sauce with the kind of heat that builds up in a satisfying, cumulative manner rather than a blow-your-head off way was just lovely. The steamed Jasmine Rice on the side tempered the heat to perfection, and cleansed the palate ahead of my favourite dish of the night - the Hungry Gecko Dal Masala (yellow dal with aubergine masala). I'm a big fan of dal, and this one was rich and smooth and perfectly complemented by the chunks of soft, smoky aubergine; even better mopped up with beautifully thin and flaky Roti Bread.

So far, so excellent. A slight hitch with the food quantities though meant that the Vegetable Laab (Laos style lettuce cups) ran out at the two girls sitting next to me (who ate their portion quickly and warily, clearly and rightly afraid I would mug them for it at any second), and the Vietnamese Mushroom Claypot never reached us at all. When we asked a passing waitress she was very apologetic and suggested that despite Jackie's best efforts the food had run out; we had eaten plenty, but it was a shame not to get to try all the dishes - particularly as we all really fancied the Mushroom Claypot.

These organisational issues aside, the food was exceptional. I might not yet be convinced by tofu but the flavours and textures elsewhere were so good that I genuinely didn't miss the meat, and would definitely be persuaded to eat these dishes on a regular basis as part of a slightly less carnivorous diet. In fact, I've put myself on the waiting list for the book - if tofu gives Jackie the energy to cook for a whole restaurant and then come out and smile and chat, then I want IN.

- Tampopo is in the Corn Exchange, Manchester M4 3TR. We were invited as Jackie's guests and didn't pay for our food, but paid for additional drinks from the bar.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Restaurant Review: Ziya Asian Grill, Rusholme

There are few things more likely to make me feel nostalgic than a trip to Rusholme. I lived here for four years, first as a student and then as a penniless graduate, and I loved it - loved its lights, and its buzz, and its shops filled with beautiful pink sweets and, of course, its ever tolerant curry houses, patiently welcoming us after a boozy night out and turning a blind eye to the fact that we would spend about £3 a head over a period of approximately four hours. And then, I grew up and got a job - a real one - and stopped going. Part of this was laziness - I'd moved to Didsbury and had decent curry houses on my doorstep - but part was a sense that its delights had faded for someone who no longer needed to eke out a basket of poppadums over three hours with twelve of their mates.

Anyway, I'm back. You've all known about Mughli for some time, that ferociously successful and ever-excellent Wilmslow Road institution, now expanding into other parts of town to sate its baying public. And it turns out that some of you also knew about Ziya Asian Grill just across the road, quietly garnering an excellent reputation over the last 18 months or so whilst I remained unaware of its charms; I've found it now though, and found much there that will lure me back on a regular basis.

First off, the venue is a good one, spanning three floors (the uppermost of which is available for private hire - it seats 30 and is pictured above), with an open kitchen (by which we choose to sit) and a fresh, clean, open feel. Secondly, the staff are ace - they happily share a box of Indian sweets they'd been given by the manager as a gift with us, polite smiles remaining in place as we snarf the lot. Thirdly, the drinks list is a well-chosen one, offering some excellent cocktails (more of these later) and some decent wines (we share a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon that arrives suitably chilled and which matches the spice in the food beautifully). All of this means nothing, though, if the food is average - in the face of so much competition on the Curry Mile, it needs to be exceptional, particularly as the prices are dearer here than at some of their more bargainous neighbours (although interestingly, they are much in line with The Place Across the Road).

And the food is very good indeed. We allow the manager Devang to choose for us; a wise move as it turns out. Poppadums arrive promptly, already broken into bite-size pieces (the lazy girl's dream) and accompanied by a tray of chutneys which include a nice spicy onion as well as a tart coriander dip that I proceed to slather over the entirety of my dinner. For my starter, I request something meaty and am duly provided with an almighty Tandoori platter consisting of Chicken Bites, Lamb Kebabs & Peshwari Lamb Chop, each succulent and well flavoured, particularly the chop. They are fastidious about using fresh produce every day rather than anything frozen, and it shows. For my date, I've brought along The Awkward Friend, who doesn't like things too hot and who is sensitive to dairy - Devang's solution is a starter-sized portion of the Chilli Garlic Fish from the main menu (sea bass fillet coated with fresh spices, green chillies and garlic, pan grilled and served with dosai potatoes) and the recommendation is 100% spot on. The unexpected highlight of Round One though is a portion of Szechuan chips from the lunch menu that are brought to us unbidden to try - they are astonishing, hot and spicy and flecked with cashew nuts, and I will need to have them every time I go even if this means crying in front of the chef.

For mains I request a fish curry of some description and the recommendation is instant - the Goan Fish Curry, with tamarind and coconut milk, is clearly something of a favourite here. Little wonder, really - the fish remains chunky rather than disintegrating and the whole affair has a freshness and lightness unusual in such a rich dish. I also desire something spinachy and have a portion of Saag Paneer on the side; spicing and texture is perfect, but the amount of cheese in the dish makes it very substantial - this is definitely a main rather than a side, even for a greedy girl. The Awkward Friend hits the jackpot again with the Rahara Lamb - chunks of meat cooked alongside minced lamb to give a really unusual texture. We also have some plain rice and the world's prettiest naan bread, the layered textures of which means it isn't as heavy or as filling as is often the case.

Despite this, we are of course full by now, and a waitress who has clearly seen such gluttony many times before cheerfully packages up our leftovers for us to take home. For dessert we each have a cocktail perched at the bar - these are on the pricey side at £7.95 a pop, but they don't fall into the trap of being too sweet and they pack a nice boozy punch, so it's hard to imagine not having one for dessert on future visits. My Fig and Ginger Dakka (pictured here with the tall, fruity Bollywood Smash) was perfect - I am particularly fond of both these flavours and am delighted to find them in a cocktail for ease of consumption.

All in all, we really liked Ziya. This was a complimentary meal as we were invited in to review, but I am already in the process of organising a weekend visit as paying customers for a number of friends who now want to go, having seen the photos I thoughtlessly plastered all over Facebook. And those leftovers? Even better the next day.

- Ziya Asian Grill is at 65-67 Wilmslow Rd, Manchester M14 5TB; telephone 0161 257 2010.