I’d been meaning to book a table at The Man Behind the Curtain after hearing great things about chef Michael O’Hare’s previous establishment The Blind Swine and seeing him race to the top of the TripAdvisor rankings shortly after opening in Leeds. After seeing he was appearing on this year’s series of The Great British Menu I thought I better get in there quick and I’m glad I did. After a low score of 4 in the first round O’Hare went on to receive a 10 for his fish course from the judges and a 10 for his main course from chef Marcus Wareing. He not only won the North West regional heat but his fish course featured at the banquet. He has also since been awarded his first Michelin star and now it is impossible to book a table on a weekend until October 2016!
Much has been made of the location of the restaurant, on the top floor Flannels clothes shop, but it is a space I am familiar with. It was once home to Anthony’s at Flannels run by another former Great British Menu contestant Anthony Flinn. It is a nice open space which has been decorated with idiosyncratic artwork by Schoph and sculpture by Gareth Griffiths. The lights were low and the music loud but not uncomfortably so. An eclectic mix of classic rock and modern alternative indie, I felt right at home. The tables are fairly spread out, you are afforded a lot of space but the restaurant was busy and the atmosphere felt good. They could fit a lot more in that the forty covers and they would be forgiven for doing so given the recent spate of bookings but that would be to the detriment of the offering and it is to their credit they haven’t.
As for the food, I was expecting out there avant garde creations and presentation. What we actually got was much more refined but still interesting and quirky, packed full of O’Hare’s personality. Looking at the decor of the restaurant and O’Hare’s sparkly gold boots and silver apron (though the rockstar locks have now gone) it would be easy to think The Man Behind the Curtain was about style over substance, let me tell you now that it is absolutely not. The ingredients are of the highest quality, the cooking to perfection, this is up there with the finest food I have eaten. They may have just been awarded their first Michelin star, Bibendum proudly stood on the counter, but some of the dishes would not be out of place in a two starred establishment.
There is one option for dinner, ‘Carte Blanche’ with twelve ‘sequences’ of divine dishes. First up was raw langoustine with mussel and parsley broth serverd on what I can only describe a spoon candelabra. Eaten in one mouthful it is rich and refreshing at the same time, absolutely divine. Seafood feature heavily in the menu with 45 minute massaged octopus next served with paprika and garlic butter. The tenderest octopus I have ever eaten. Then came small pancakes filled with crispy spiced Moroccan lamb and goat curd. The only off note on the menu for me was sea urchin tongue, it tasted of the sea, watery and slightly salty.
The dishes started to get a bit gothic then with fish cheek covered in a squid ink garlic aioli. Black food is never particularly appetising and with trepidation I tucked in. The fish was so tender it melted in the mouth and the aioli gave a lovely rich depth. Then spider crab in a Spanish with cooked in Spanish tomatoes topped with a quail egg, a beautiful combination of the delicate crab meat, spiced tomato and rich egg. Then came ‘Emancipation’, black cod fish and chips, another black dish and another triumph. As it arrives you can smell the salt & vinegar, just like fish and chips, but when you tuck into the delicate fish and crisp potatoes it is so much more.
Sashimi scallops and chilli sweetbreads were next up, contrasting textures and flavours, the scallops designed to refresh from the rich sweetbreads. The scallops were good but my god the sweetbreads were good, the best I have ever had. Onto the ‘main’ course, beautifully pink Iberico pork, an amazing piece of meat with a depth of flavour I have not had from pork before, served with salty anchovies and a runny egg yolk in an edible egg shell. O’Hare’s food is not only pleasing on the eye and unbelievably tasty but he has all the modern cooking tricks and techniques up his sleeve too.
Onto the desert, shrouded under a silver chocolate blanket a delicious chocolate and lavender mouse with violet ice cream. On the side to share was a potato custard with puffed corn. I’m not sure I get the whole potato as a sweet thing, I’ve been served potato ice cream before and this was better, I’m just not sure it fit on the plate. Still, I ate it all. To finish a tiny cupcake served on a plinth. Eat it all, including the wrapper we were told, so we did… wow! The wrapper melts in your mouth, the mouse on the top is rich and then an explosion of sharp fruit juice. Such small little thing but amazing flavour.
The whole experience was amazing, the restaurant is cool, the service is laid back but attentive at the same time, the food looks amazing and tastes better. A nice touch is that the chefs bring out a couple of the dishes for each table and explain the food. Even O’Hare makes regular appearances in the dining room and is more than happy to chat with diners and explain their dishes. I would rush back, and I would recommend eating at The Man Behind the Curtain to anyone but god knows when I’ll be able to get a table again. I genuinely wouldn’t be surprised if next year Michael O’Hare had two Michelin stars on his shoes, this guy is going places.