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.
We’re first to arrive. The room lies still, dimly lit, expectant. 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 an experience 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 modern art; glazed ceramic hands in a two finger salute, adorn the tables.
The dinner experience 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
Booking is essential, and this means paying for everything but the drinks up front – at least £165 for two. It makes sense 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 rather than an obligation weeks earlier. 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 hand at these diners taken in by a brilliant, lucrative practical joke.
*Pictures from 2015 and 2017 indicate the level of sophistication in the dishes but do not represent the current menu
THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN, VICAR LANE
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