I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this memory - one of parents and their friends in smoke-filled dining rooms, with grown-up chatter spilling out of the door as I tried to catch a glimpse through the bannister at all the fun I was missing out on.
It recalls memories of parents’ frequent dinner parties, a popular evening ritual that permeated households throughout the 80’s, 90’s and right into the Noughties. But as ‘Come Dine With Me’ has made way for ‘Gogglebox’, has the humble dinner party become a thing of the past?
Has ‘Netflix and Chill’ and Deliveroo replaced all of this? Are work commitments and the popularity of eating out to blame? The idea of a large group of friends meeting up on an evening and eating together seems a rather rare occurrence in our lives nowadays, as communication through social media replaces the more traditional meet ups.
However, there’s still one man keeping the art of conversation alive, and he’s doing it with the help of food. A multi award-winning vegetarian chef in Whalley Range has managed to re-imagine the almost lost experience from his own home - and we are all invited…
‘The Walled Gardens’ is the brainchild of Eddie Shepherd, and he serves up a contemporary 12 course tasting menu straight from his front room to just 8 diners each night. As soon as I heard about it, I just had to go and discover just what Eddie has created and whether he’s managed to capture the unique atmosphere of a ‘proper’ dinner party.
First of all, I should lay my cards on the table and say that when looking for The Walled Gardens – I got lost. Not hideously lost where you end up having to make a new life for yourself on a desolate farm, but lost enough to end up late and looking a little bit flustered.
That’s because The Walled Gardens isn’t sign posted and it’s not advertised – it truly is Eddie’s house and as such – a little hard to find. Riding my bike down a quiet street in Whalley Range, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine that I’d be walking into a gastronomic dining experience, but as I entered the enclosed courtyard of the estate in which the restaurant is – I started to get excited.
On the far end of the courtyard is an unassuming flat, and as I walked my bike closer, I managed to make out a small sign next to the door. Nervously knocking (nobody wants to be at the wrong place) my fears were quickly alleviated by Eddie’s warm welcome and huge smile.
With 15 years’ experience as a professional chef, Eddie has taken his unique style of modern vegetarian cooking all around the world with him, operating pop-up restaurants, designing menus and offering consultancy and training in contemporary plant-based cuisine.
The Walled Gardens provides a unique dining experience, where guests taste and learn all about plant-based dishes which are not only innovative but also exciting. And I must say - Eddie certainly delivers on the food front.
I should say that as someone who was vegetarian for 9 years, I’ve never been as excited or as impressed by a vegetarian menu as I was with what Eddie created. Each dish manages to utilise plants and vegetables in ways that I’d never seen before - resulting in a truly unique dining experience all round.
To divulge too many details about the food would be a disservice to the surprise of the experience, but I will pick out a couple of my stand-outs, of which the Marinated Halloumi with rhubarb molasses comes first.
It was unlike any halloumi dish I’d ever had before and came packed with flavours and textures that will knock your socks off. Eddie is certainly experimental when it comes to his food and as such this Halloumi is as far removed from the squeaky, rubbery stuff as you could possibly imagine.
The cheese itself is fermented with rose water beforehand, using an ancient Japanese technique called ‘koji’ - which breaks down the structure of the halloumi and leaves it with a unique texture and mouthfeel, alongside the delicate rose flavouring throughout. It is then fried in a striking charcoal batter that leaves the outside crispy and the insides slightly gooey and tender.
Similarly, the Cured Mushrooms are certainly unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before too. Perfect for anyone who doesn’t like the texture of mushrooms, Eddie cures them, dries them, smokes them and then cooks them - finally drizzling over a beetroot and vanilla jus to bring it all together.
What you’re left with are some of the meatiest and tastiest mushrooms imaginable, and a distinctly strong smoky kick that will make you think twice about the need to buy a steak ever again.
Dish after dish came out and each one impressed and dazzled myself and the other diners.
As we all got to know each other and opened up (the BYOB booze helped!) we almost all forgot that we weren’t sat with friends in our own house. The only clue was the continual welcome interjections by Eddie who would explain his dishes with genuine enthusiasm and pride - infectiously passing this on to everyone sat around the table.
It was certainly a diverse mix of diners that night, including two women from Sweden who’d heard about Eddie’s project online, and two couples who had been friends and worked together for around 40 years.
By the end of the evening we were all on first name terms, we’d been invited to holiday homes and weddings and we all knew exactly what each other thought of Brexit.
And to be entirely fair to Eddie and The Walled Gardens, he’s managed to create something that is not only truly unique in Manchester, but also something that’s especially difficult to capture at any time.
By using his love of food and presenting a series of stunning dishes to complete strangers, we all managed to come together and forget that we didn’t know each other just an hour before.