It is time I posted The Man Behind the Curtain review. I’ve had about a month to daydream about just how much I enjoyed this one cold night in December, spent in the company of around 50 other souls (10 of whom were wearing space cadet silver shoes). I’d go as far as to suspect that at least one was wearing a wig stolen from the bald pate of a fifties rocker. But maybe he just is a rocker? edit: apparently this hair is ALL REAL. ALL ROCKER. How a person can maintain that amount of volume is BEYOND me – looks like he has even more skills up his sleeve!
The Man Behind the Curtain is one of Leeds’ best-kept secrets. Unadvertised, this little gem sits silently and smugly atop a blandly extortionate clothing shop. Just where you’d never think to look…
A bouncer with a clipboard confirmed our reservation, and we were whisked through the empty store to the escalator. Emerging into the dimly-lit attic warehouse, a lady welcomed us by name. Kudos, I already feel welcome (I’m easily pleased).
I’m astounded by the volume as we wander between the arty screens, shielding the diners from those emerging from the escalator.
It sounds like we’re in a velvet-lined box. The utilitarian, stripped back room should be ricocheting with the Head Chef’s commands and the braying cacophany of the painfully rich, surely? I’m so judgemental, aren’t I. Sorry. But this restaurant is expensive – the menu, devised of eleven tastes, comes to £65 before drinks. The wine flight is £25 or £45, depending on whether you choose the premium option.
I found out about this restaurant from a friend, who whispered it into my ear. She didn’t shout about it because it doesn’t shout; it doesn’t need to. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
Michael O’Hare, chef-owner and guy behind this outfit, was trained at Noma, the world’s best restaurant (it’s been in the world’s top 50 restaurants for 9 years). It’s a restaurant that schools its chefs in some of the most cutting edge food on the planet – but it doesn’t pay all of them. Which is pretty unsustainable for most normal people out there.
I’ve found the root cause of the muffle in this jewellery box of a restaurant. There are four chefs, working away behind a hip-height counter at one end of the room. They’re smiling at each other, experimenting, moving slowly but with purpose through each part of a meticulous menu. They aren’t on a plinth above the diners, making a spectacle of their awesomeness, nor are they hidden away like worker ants, faceless behind the glory. They are merely very, very talented hosts. And the level of respect this shows to all of the chefs involved, as well as to the diners, is reciprocated in the warm hush of parties enjoying the best food of their lives. Nice one, Michael O’Hare.
So, to the food. I should explain. I am not the daughter of an oil baron, bathing daily in milk and gold leaf. This expensive night out was my birthday present from The Man. Best present ever.
A few days before my birthday, the restaurant rang. On the night of our reservation, they said, the only other diners were to be one table, of over thirty guests. They were worried that our experience wouldn’t be perfect. Could they move us to another night? Ho hum, it was my birthday present…
“for the inconvenience we can take 50% off your bill?”
…can you?! That is absolutely going to make me the happiest person in the whole entire world (or at least in Leeds). Yes, we can change our date. We can stretch my birthday out. Best customer service ploy I have ever seen. Therefore, a wine flight, each, was on the cards, as well as the tasting menu. Because you only live once.
The meal began. Lovely bread with confusing butter options arrived – caramelised onion, normal butter or salted caramel butter (this I thought could be a little saltier, to combat the unusual sweetness. Very interesting though).
First proper food: a foie gras magnum. Except…liver instead of ice cream. Smooth, creamy foie gras wrapped in a slick of balsamic, chocolatey, nutty glaze. Inspired concept, though taste-wise the creamy, fattiness of the foie gras so resembled ice cream in my mouth that my mind kept trying to fill the blanks, as if I really was only munching a tiny magnum. You have to concentrate.
With this came a tentacled silver tree, a grasping, seaweed sculpture bedecked with rivery gulps in little spoonfuls – a raw razor clam in a mermaid mouthful of salty mussel broth with floating oilslick blobs of dill. Delivered in a smooth, deep, silver spoon resembling the sheen inside an oystershell, the cool metal delivered this gulp of chilled, fresh sea as a weird, hydra aphrodisiac. For me, the subtlety of this was masterful.
It felt like an invasion to be snap-happy in here; nothing and no one were being flash, so I thought it best to take my shots very privately. So, sorry, some courses come without imagery. You’ll just have to visit yourself.
Next up was liquid Autumn, and I do wish I had a photo of this. Beetroot soup with blackberry leaf sorbet and horseradish snow. The sorbet was intense; the sharp fragrance couldn’t have been more nostalgic. The smell of the British countryside paired with a modern and masterful sharp, perfumed mouthful. Heaven. Combined with the frosty horseradish and the welcome-home, earthy warmth of the soup, this course felt like a chilly Autumn day from childhood. The beetroot even echoed the lurid, stained fingers of blackberrying. The sorbet was my absolute favourite individual taste discovery of the night.
The zenith of my night. The dish de resistance. Raw langoustine with lardo and lavender. It sounds like an abomination: Miss Piggy dressed up in a sundress, spritzed with your nan’s perfume. But it was the most sublime mouthful I’ve ever experienced. It was like a dream, really; as the smooth softness melted away in your mouth you wondered if it could possibly have been that good. Better have another mouthful to check…
Sprinkled with rosemary salt, the lardo was a pork-rich tracing paper over the gelatinous raw langoustine, melding to create a subtle combination of sea and land. So, kind of like someone dropped the poshest, uncooked surf and turf you’ve ever seen into a flowerbed, then re-plated it.
If I could eat this about once a month for the rest of my life, I’d die happy.
The white wine that accompanied this and the next fish dish was a clean match for both, but the servers should have highlighted that this glass should accompany both dishes (I just necked mine…)
Next, a tale of environmental catastrophe – black cod. An optical illusion of a plate was reminiscent of shimmering, opaque waters, sludged by a black oilspill. If it tastes like this, I might go in for a bit of global warming! The melt-in-the-mouth soft cod with an oriental sea splash of dashi and a heavy dusting of dried squid ink carried a fried memory of traditional English fish and chips, from the crisp shallots. It worked perfectly.
Next came Winter. This menu somehow encapsulated seasonal ingredients without being predictably seasonal – the langoustine lardo dish conjured both spring and summer, the blackberry and beetroot soup autumn – this wasn’t a tasting menu, it was a tasting year.
Winter’s offering was this moist, disintegrating ox sat atop a foie gras splurge and crisp, sugar puff salt and vinegar fried wild rice. Though a few of the offerings so far had flown in the face of received textural wisdom, this one encapsulated the belief at its best – dissolvingly soft meat, intensified by rich and fatty foie gras, seemed all the softer and richer against a firework display of salt and vinegar crispy explosions. The accompanying sherry was an inspired choice.
This was an interesting one for me. It wasn’t totally to my taste, but it was interesting. The gently pink pork combined with the little curls of fishy boquerones well, and unusually, but I’m not a fan of the fatty crunch of crackling. It didn’t add much for me (though I think a crackling fan may well be in heaven). I enjoyed the soft purple potatoes on the ajo blanco, though I was waiting for a Spanish kick-in-the-nuts from the garlic, which didn’t come. For me it was a dish of separate, interesting elements – it didn’t quite gel as all of the other dishes on the menu had. A gentle, apple-y cava slipped down merrily with this, as we continued through our rather charming wine flight.
Time for a barrage of desserts.
This course straddled the sweet/savoury divide. Laced with Thai flavours, this was another interesting one for me – I didn’t get enough flavour from the fennel crisps (more freeze dried bendy than crisp shatters) though I liked the play of traditionally savoury ingredients in a dessert.
These guys, though. They look so deceptively boring – could anything be more “done” than a cupcake? But again, Michael played with our perceptions and blew it out of the ball park. The softly whipped, shiny Italian meringue sat on top of soft brioche darted through with the most intensely flavoured dried passion fruit, and pistachios crumbed the top. As the paper was edible, it was a pop-it-in mouthful, a real explosion on your tastebuds. The Man did this, then looked up at me in awe, and mumbled, “I think this must be what heroin is like. I just need some more.” Which is pretty cute (and a bit hilarious), really. Who needs heroin when you’ve got a cupcake like this?! And what idiot thinks ONE MOUTHFUL is enough?! Bring me a crate of these, stat!
These three little gems were great finishers, easing us lightly back down to the real world. The Madras popcorn was distinctly lacking in Madras spice but gave a pleasing crunch. The doughnut was filled with peanut butter, which I usually don’t care much for – but I found it pleasant. Not utterly special though. The little gin and tonic marshmallows were an inspired idea, but a confusing texture – the fatty gloopiness didn’t entirely match the sharp flavours they were intending to portray. Could have been more light and airy, I think. A pretty tasty threesome overall, though.
We just couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. We went for a coffee to draw out the experience, and turned our attention even more upon the kitchen. Far from the usual barking of an authoritarian head chef, Michael worked alongside his chefs, murmuring advice, chuckling along with them. All genuinely seemed to be having a good time. He’s the sort of chef you think you’d quite like to be mates with – astounding talent without the bravado and strutting.
How he can avoid strutting with dishes like this I’m not sure, but I hope he continues to be so self-effacing and genuinely likeable. Wouldn’t want all of his well-deserved good reviews going to his wig, now, would we.