I don't think I've ever waited 10 months for a restaurant reservation, but 10 months I waited, which is about standard for The Man Behind The Curtain, in Leeds. I have absolutely no idea why it's called that, and I really expected to be sitting at a darkened spotlit bar, velvet curtain flung back dramatically while each dish is served with a flourish, face forever hidden. My expectations were poorly researched (if at all).
No, The Man Behind The Curtain is a large, white space on the top of a department store, splattered with paintings much like the dish plated in the opening photo. Staff don leather aprons with either muted or fluorescent straps, possibly to denote seniority? It reminded me of Street XO Madrid, similarly located, and similarly what would become an attack on the senses.
We were seated, one of only three parties in the room. Sunlight shone directly into my eyes, and the staff hurried to close the floor-to-ceiling black curtains, clearly used to it. Strains of Placebo played, and we opted for the full tasting menu, a secret to us and one that would remain to be so for the duration of the meal, save our server's explanations as the plates come down. Bathrooms are alarmingly furnished with egg yolk-yellow toilet roll, so notable my friend brought some (clean I hope) to the table for us to all goggle over.
We started with an oyster served with strawberry kimchi. So delighted was I with the spicy strawberry pickle, I barely registered what was a plump and juicy mollusc, briny of the sea.
We were served in a flurry, perhaps to keep within the 2hr 15 min timing stated on the menu. A tiny little bao, fluffy and garish red, nestled veal sweetbreads in XO sauce, pickled shiitake mushrooms and kimchi mayo. The mint and basil mentioned were absent to my palate. A cute mouthful, and one I could have repeated several times over.
Wagyu beef tartare arrived in a cosmic bowl, slightly suspended with gordal olives and some sort of creamy sauce. I really wish I'd asked for a printed menu, or had one proffered. The fatty beef with the rich metallic flavours melted on the tongue, and while I found the transparent potato starch sheets balancing on top impressive in looks, it brought nothing to my party. My appetite was appropriately whetted, and I impatiently awaited the next course.
The chef, Michael O'Hare, clearly has a colour scheme going on; it's not often you see this much red amongst savoury courses, and this was the most surprising. Within the shards of Sriracha crackers (which didn't contain even a hint of the now-ubiquitous condiment) was a spider crab, wonton skin and lardo 'lasagne' - layers of rich crab flavour, crisp crunch and rich pork fat. Underneath the sheet of bilberry jam (what the hell is a bilberry?) was a tiny, fried quails egg which I didn't especially know what to do with. I sort of wish they'd wrapped the crab, wonton and pork fat combo in some silky pasta and bathed it in a cream sauce. I started to long for comfort and warmth.
'Fish & Chips', made famous by O'Hare's appearance on The Great British Menu, was probably one of my favourite courses. Buried under a pile of crisp potato, was a perfectly seemingly steamed piece of cod, swimming in squid ink. The entire thing was dusted with malt vinegar powder, and topped with sprayed, golden prawns. I love sour flavours, and I loved this. Each mouthful was intensely seaside, that distinct flavour of fried, the lip puckering balance.
The last of the main courses looked like a piece of modern art, or something someone might have dropped. Depends how you feel about art, I suppose. Iberico pork, cooked until blushing pink, with a boquerone anchovy, anchovy cream, slow cooked egg and charcoal shavings. There was a gooey, sticky, reduced meaty jus hiding in there too, which was sweet and delicious and definitely not enough of it. The anchovy was the imposter here, one that clanged my palate and jarred my flavours that I was enjoying so much - the smoky, the rich, the porky.
And like that, we were on to dessert. I was disappointed. It didn't feel like 8 courses, and I felt a little lacking. But no matter; dessert looked like it was sent from space. Lavender and chocolate ice cream came sheathed in white chocolate sprayed silver, a potato custard dotted with beetroot vinegared rice crispies.
Not your typical colours of what one might find naturally, but the combination was pleasant. The potato in the custard contributed only towards texture, a silky smooth feeling in the mouth.
Petit fours delighted and disgusted our group in equal measure. Cupcakes, edible entirely including its casing, hid a liquid passionfruit centre that exploded in the mouth, sending giggles all around the table. The wannabe Daim bar was dusted in cardamom and caraway, reminiscent of those handfuls of aromatics you grab on your way out of the local curry house to chew on to freshen the breath.
Just like that, and £120 each later, we were done. There was nothing about the room or the staff (though pleasant) that made us want to spend any longer there, and we disbanded to a nearby pub. My overall and overwhelming experience was one of muted whimsy. The food felt discordant, not so much ecstatically pleasurable but wilfully provocative. I have no doubt that Michael O'Hare is a talented chef, and several courses excited me, but overall I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction. I wished for a hot dish, perhaps some bread and butter. I was there for an event, a procession of art, not to be fed.
I ate a McDonald's on the train home.
68-78 Vicar Lane,
Top floor Flannels
Leeds LS1 7JH
Top floor Flannels
Leeds LS1 7JH
For better pictures and quite a different opinion to mine, check out Chris' post here.