The Man Behind The Curtain, Leeds - Our reviewer asks: 'Is he taking the mickey?'
There is a moment, long before you reach your table, that you get a glimpse of the extraordinary pleasures in wait at the city’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.
The restaurant can be found on the top floor of Flannels, on Vicar Lane. As you arrive, a night guard escorts you into the building and shows you to the lift.
We’re first to arrive. The room lies still, dimly lit, expectant, as staff hurry about their final preparations. When shimmering golden gin and tonics arrive on individual marble trays edged in silver, alongside tiny spiced prawns in an edible cellophane wrapper, you get an immediate sense that tonight’s will be a dining experience quite unlike any other.
Chef Michael O’Hare – haircut, tattoos, you know the one – insists the name doesn’t refer to him. It apparently quotes The Wizard of Oz, but in a venue where even the toilet roll bears his branding, inevitably diners assume that he is “the man”. Even so, they would search in vain for a curtain among the blacks, greys and brutal concrete of the design. Rows of skateboards are repurposed as modern art; glazed ceramic hands, two fingers raised in a devil-horn salute, adorn each of the marble tables.
As courses pass, the pace slows, more people take their places in the restaurant and the gaps between courses becomes distended. Though each of these well-spaced tables is following the same regimented sequence, the atmosphere is relaxed. A steady thrum of conversation and laughter gradually builds as the room fills and the wine flows.
What’s the menu like?
The dinner experience at Man Behind The Curtain consists of 14 tiny “sequences” – none so substantial as to be considered an actual “course” – and it is through these two-hours-plus of relentless Lilliputian adventure that O’Hare’s playful, whimsical, mickey-taking character emerges. The sequences follow in rapid succession, each brought to the table by two waiters – rarely the same pairing twice – one of whom explains exactly what it contains. The menus have long ago been whisked away, so the guidance is crucial, particularly when the food resembles nothing else you’ve ever eaten in your life.
Now onto the food
Two early sequences showcase that wit. First there’s a slither of veal, given a sizzle of spice and encased in shaped sweetbread reddened with Chinese XO sauce to resemble a tiny hamburger trapped in the scarlet bun of the Wimpy logo. Similarly, char siu octopus is presented as a tiny hotdog, the bread blackened by squid ink.
Inevitably, with the dizzying list of ingredients you sometimes have to ask for these to be repeated. A fruit cocktail fortified with plankton, oysters decorated with a little dazzle of gold leaf, spiced yellow-fin tuna flavoured with Fisherman’s Friend. The latter is served on a beautiful rippled blue plate; each sequence has its own distinctive crockery to complement O’Hare’s own artistic creations. Yet only with the seventh dish does the first cutlery arrive, a tiny silver spoon with a long slender handle like some faintly terrifying instrument a surgeon would demand of his nurse at the key moment of a delicate medical procedure.
The menu offers a number of miniature takes of his signature dishes. Cod loin is served with shallots and a little potato then splattered with a craze of squid ink like some edible Jackson Pollock. Better still is the Jamaican-themed moist salt fish, decorated with delicate threads of chilli and drizzled in a creamy yellow lightly-spiced ackee sauce.Hearty rich oxcheek is decorated with a foie gras foam and dashed with the crinkly sprinkles of rice potato puffs; an earthy slither of squab pigeon is lifted by a rhubarb hoisin sauce and enoki noodles.
Instead we use this to pick through a little mound of juicy 160-day aged steak tartare. Though a staple of continental cuisine, raw mince is something I usually avoid. Here, drizzled in a beef reduction and topped with a film of potato starch shimmering like flame, it was wonderful, irresistible, revelatory.
Room for dessert?
The night slips finally into sweetness – pina colada sorbet with a sculpted white chocolate feuille, violet ice cream, raspberry macaroon. By now this dazing, dazzling assault has somehow pushed to the back of the mind and some less inconvenient time the question of whether, behind the curtain, the man might be laughing into his hands at these diners taken in by a brilliant, lucrative practical joke.
And the drinks?
The choice of wines is as expensive as it is indulgent. Those pushing the boat out can pair each sequence with an appropriate wine; those on an unlimited budget can go for a grand cru option for upwards of £1,000 per head. Seriously. YEP expenses rarely extend so far, so we reconcile ourselves to the cheapest on the list, the light and easygoing Pierre Close Nebbiolo – a French take on an Italian red – which is a whopping £61 all the same. Frankly this is an indulgence too far; Michael could serve a decent wine at half this price without any great loss of quality.
How much was the bill? Was it value for money?
Booking is essential, and this means paying for everything but the drinks up front – an investment of at least £165 for two. It makes sense, I guess, at a restaurant which would be severely inconvenienced by no-shows, but being asked to pay the service charge in advance seems strange; this should be a choice at the end of my evening rather than an obligation weeks earlier.
Address: Lower ground floor, 68-78 Vicar Lane, Leeds, LS1 7JH
Opening times:?Bookings available 6-8.15pm Tue-Thur; 12.15-2pm and 6-9.15pm Fri; 12.15-2pm and 5-9.30pm Sat. Closed Sun-Mon
Telephone: 0113 2432376