Have you ever walked through an art gallery which is full of classical paintings, intricately painted masterpieces by the likes of Constable, Monet and Turner?
And then you suddenly stumble on another part of the gallery, which features what is loosely termed ‘modern art’. I’m thinking of Tracey Emin. There’s a moment when part of you doesn’t quite know what to make of it all.
Well, it feels a bit like that walking into The Man Behind The Curtain, the Leeds fine dining restaurant run by Michael O’Hare, who managed to bag himself a Michelin Star - and rightly so - in 2015.
Before we even get to the food, the top floor of Flannels on Vicar Lane, which is where the restaurant is situated, looks and feels like Andy Warhol has just left. It looks like that room you stumbled into in the art gallery, the one which left you picking your jaw up from the floor, scratching your head and wondering if you’re qualified to even be there.
The walls of this loftspace are daubed in ragged black scribbles and splashes of paint, punctuated by the odd face and splurge of crimson. Take the chairs away and you would think you were in an art studio.
Of course, this being a Michelin Star restaurant, you can’t just wander in. There’s a waiting list, which currently stands at about six months, which is how long I waited to get a table for two, having booked it well before Christmas.
Right from the off, it’s an experience. Somehow, the fact that you have to walk through a closed clothing shop (Flannels) in order to get to the restaurant, makes it that much more intriguing. A very vigilant doorman stands guard just inside the doors leading off Vicar Lane. We actually walked past the entrance and were tacking back when he popped his head out of the door and in an impressive act of precognition, enquired, ‘Man Behind the Curtain?’ How did he know?
Once upstairs, coats are taken and you enter the aforementioned dining space, which is dimly lit, so dimly in fact that most of the tables have Art Deco lamps craning over them. Except ours, which was situated just in front of the bar and which made reading the menu a bit difficult, if I’m being brutally honest, which I am.
There’s wine. Serious wine. with some bottles ranging into three figures and one bottle of champers rolling in at a magnificent £880.
It’s surprisingly busy when we enter, which gives the place a warm, intimate feel. Considering it is booked out until mid-July, I doubt that’s going to change.
Unless you want to book a lunchtime table, it’s a tasting menu comprising eight (or nine, was it? I lost count) courses of the culinary equivalent of modern art, the first of which arrives promptly on an elegant, twisted spoon: a tiny square of octopus with lemon, caper and parsley (if memory serves). Gone in a mouthful but oh, what a mouthful.
Of course, you can opt to throw even more caution to the wind and ignore the basic £75-a-head menu and have matched wines instead but that will set you back £130 a head. We opted for the former and tried to order a modestly priced bottle of wine for around £30.
The next course was a delightful veal sweetbread slider, a tiny thing which looks for all the world like a miniature beefburger inside a tomato. The steamed sriracha bread bun has hints of chili and the tang of vinegar, while the burger is veal with pickled shitake. Again, there’s no point in dissecting something so dainty, so it’s down in one. Delightful.
Next up was warm wagyu beef served with rendered fat which is presented in a wafer so thin it’s see through and a cordial of olive juice; and then hake throat, which was superb and we both enjoyed immensely.
At this stage, it’s worth pointing out that as each dish arrived, one of the staff (and I presumed some were chefs, judging by their attire, which are all avante garde aprons) gives you a description of what it is and how it’s made but unless you’re a chef, it’s not something you’re likely to remember the following week, so just nod politely, as we did.
If there was a stand-out dish, it was the black cod with dashi (the stuff they use to make a base for things like miso soup), potato, ink and vinegar. Our server warned us the dish would turn our teeth black and cautioned against getting any on our clothing. It was pure O’Hare, served on shiny black dishes which looked like frozen ceramic splashes, in the centre a crispy, black, aromatic mass with a flavour thick with but not overwhelmed by vinegar. It’s fish n’ chips but it’s also incongruous. It reminds one of the dish he became famous for on the Great British Menu, the one with the porcelain hand, which even left Marcus Wareing scratching his head.
To go through all the dishes would take up more room than is available but suffice to say it won’t be a dull meal, nor one you won’t want to tall your friends about afterwards.
There’s ox cheek, foie gras, truffles and trotters in fino sherry and more. If I have to take issue with any dish, it would be the dessert: milk chocolate lavender and honey, violet ice cream, served with potato custard (yes, you read that right) and some puffed crispies which tasted of tomato and vinegar, a combination which just didn’t work for me but might for some.
At the end, there was also a tiny toffeed chocolate (a bit like a Dime Bar), which will surely pull your fillings out if you let it. The final bill (plus 10 per cent service charge) came in at £217, so, forgive me for saying but while we both enjoyed the experience, we won’t be hurrying back.
The Man Behind The Curtain
Address: Top Floor Flannels, 68-78 Vicar Lane, Leeds, LS1 7JH
Tel: 0113 243 2376
Opening times: Tues-Thurs 6.30pm–8.30pm, Fri 12.30pm-2pm/6.30pm–8.30pm, Sat 12.30pm–2pm/5pm–5.30pm/6.30pm–8.30pm, Sun & Mon closed