Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Man Behind The Curtain - Leeds

Now i'm firmly based 'Up North' and finally out of my (admittedly short-sighted) bubble of only keeping an eye on new openings in London, the announcement and buzz late summer around Michael O'Hare opening The Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds city centre certainly captured my attention. Mr O'Hare was an entirely new name to me but having done a bit of research and seeing details of the previous restaurants he'd worked for and menus he'd been responsible for certainty piqued my interest enough to book in. Am I ever glad that I did.

Michael is clearly somewhat outspoken about what he expects from this restaurant, just take a look at the 'thoughts' section on the restaurant website. Amongst the bravado, he talks about the goal for Man Behind the Curtain is "to create a restaurant serving ultra modern food that has its own identity. I like the idea of always having one iconic dish on the menu – not classic but iconic". I love that he's set himself such a high standard and set a mission statement like this on the website for him to be judged by in the future, and one that I look forward to checking back on in a few years to see whether he's succeeded.

One thing I wasn't particularly impressed with was the booking e-mail that requested that I call them to make a £20 deposit per person and a note near the bottom that stated "We kindly request that guests dress smartly for the experience, as such gentleman are requested to wear a jacket for dinner. Sports shoes and leisurewear are not permitted." I like getting dressed up for a nice meal as much as anyone and would've rolled with a suit anyway but I absolutely hate being told what to wear - especially when i'm sat in the restaurant dressed up and see people traipsing in wearing jeans and a scruffy check shirt. Some sort of consistency would be good in this regard, but I appreciate that a newly opened fine dining restaurant in the North can't always be as fussy as they'd like to pretend to be, given the reduced audience in the first place.

As a first impression on arriving at a restaurant, this was certainly one of the odder ones - there was a small sign in the window of Flannels clothing store advising that there was a restaurant on the top floor which I feel like could very easily have been missed, especially after a few drinks. Being greeted by a security guard holding a scrap of paper with reservation names on and then walking through a darkened store early evening was certainly a pretty underwhelming start to things and must be an absolute security nightmare. I did read afterwards that it has been used for a restaurant in the past making me even more surprised that they've never sorted this out with a stairway or some other means of access. It definitely made the restaurant feel secondary to the shop and given the attention to detail that was displayed throughout the restaurant itself (i'll get to this later), this introduction was a real shame.

Spirits were immediately lifted once we got into the lift and the menu was displayed to whet our appetites on the way up to the third floor. The evening menu is made up of one option - the  12 course 'Degustation' menu (dictionary definition of degustation, to save you looking it up is "the action or an instance of tasting especially in a series of small portions").

The wine pairing to match the tasting menu was pitched at a very reasonable £20 which covered 4 glasses in total or 3 courses per glass. 

The small but perfectly formed cocktail menu sounded interesting so it would have been rude not to get started on those.

"Violet Gin and Tonic"

"Tahitian vanilla"
This came encased in a solid ball of ice with the alcohol melting away in the bottom like a boozy slush puppy. The hollow vanilla pod as a straw was a nice touch.

A great show-piece to start, served on a silver tray and consisting of olives and anchovies with a drop of oil served within a clear edible bag. They were to be dipped into the glass of vermouth for two seconds to allow the outer casing to begin to break down and then popped it into your mouth to allow the bag to disintegrate leaving a delicious salty snack. A wonderfully imaginative small and perfectly formed introduction.

"Salty Fingers"
Creamy oyster emulsion served with an oyster shell, sat on a bed of flakey salt and surrounded by tart oyster leaf and 'salty fingers' which are a second type of edible leaf and a new one on me - crunchy and pleasantly bitter. The leaves were used to dip into the 'oyster' and the tartness of the leaves combined perfectly with the rich sauce. The sauce was so great it was a proper finger into the shell job to try every last drop.

Served hot, ths consisted of a piece of potato which was light almost like a tiny dumpling and served with a thin sliver of lardo and sprinkled with frieze dried raspberry for some extra crunch and sweetness. The spoon was still slightly warm to the touch and this whole course was like perfect miniaturised comfort food. 

One of those clever dishes that was both hot and cold simultaneously, served with a scoop of pea ice cream as the centre piece and which had hot pea soup poured onto the dish by the chef at the table. Beetroot, red cabbage and carrot sauce where then swirled through the pea to add colour and tartness to the soup. The whole thing tasted of the freshest most flavoursome peas and was incredibly light and enjoyable. 
It came served with a side of fresh bread with a portion of delicious fatty lardo and what was described as bacon crunch, essentially tiny flakes of crispy bacon. I assume the bread was meant to be used to dip into the pea soup but the fatty bacon spread was so good on it's own that it almost completely distracted from the pea. I was so impressed that even a casually introduced side almost took attention away from the stunning pea dish.

The crustacean was served in a moules mariniere consumme with drops of parsley oil. At first each spoonful was almost too much like taking a mouthful of salty sea water but as the initial burst of flavour subsided it became much milder, especially once i'd swallowed some of the juice and had the plump langoustine left to savour. The presentation was once again stunning, each spoon could be lifted away from the centrepiece but this was initially barely noticeable. 

The fish course apparently changes daily based on whatever is fresh at the local Kirkgate market which was great to hear from the chef. On this occasion I was served a beautiful looking piece of incredibly delicate cod loin, covered with tiny scraps of crispy potato and served in squid ink with a dose of what must've been vinegar powder sprinkled over the top. It was like fish and chips turned up to 11 and smelt absolutely incredible as it was placed in front of me. A truly stunning plate of food. 

In a change to the menu, the sweetbreads had been replaced with a portion of Lobster tail. Sweetbreads are one of my favourites so I was initially a little disappointed but what better than lobster tail as a replacement? The tail came served on a swirl of black garlic paste and a slice of dried milk skin on top as presentation. The milk and garlic were extremely mild taste wise, more there to add texture to the dish whilst allowing the flavour of the lobster to shine. 

A portion of wonderfully succulent ox cheek, swerved with a foie gras and cherry sauce then decorated with puffed salt and vinegar wild rice. The sherry paired with this course had also been used in the sauce which worked together and complemented each other exceptionally well. The crunchiness of the puffed rice with the ultra soft meat was another fantastic combination, another real highlight.

Inspired by Tobacco and Vanille scent from the Tom Ford private collection. I'd had a sniff previously but it was a nice touch to have the sample card sprayed with the scent. Hidden inside the tin were two posh mini-milk type lollies flavoured with the rich vanilla and tobacco flavour of the perfume, which were chopped open with the haircutting scissors. A really inventive dish that worked on even more senses at the same time.
As a brief aside, I noticed this morning on a TripAdvistor review of the restaurant that ChesireTraveller80 mentioned "Top Tip... don't take the Tom Ford card you will have to give it back (you will know what we mean when you go)." WHAT IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE? 

This was a dessert right up my street - light, refreshing and cleansing after the prior courses. Made up of a couple of fresh compressed strawberries and a scoop of parmesan ice cream, finished with basil snow and pieces of freeze dried strawberry, all served on a base of 'raw crumble' and balsamic gel. What sounded like a lot to fit in flavour wise worked together fantastically, the sweetness of the strawberries toned down with the parmesan and basil and that tiny taste of balsamic at the end the icing on the cake. Wonderful.

Left to right in the photo below, these certainly kept the imagination levels high. 
Frieze dried raspberry with saffron encased in milk chocolate. 
I'm not 100% sure on this one, I believe it was cep mushroom in dark chocolate
The highlight was the Campari and grapefruit liquid hidden away in the hard white chocolate outer - a down in one job if there ever was one as the centre was fit to burst with the smallest of pressure.
The final chocolate was a strip of crispy bean curd encased in milk chocolate and rolled in lavender and caraway.

The final course was an ultra-refreshing portion of compressed fruit. Consisting of watermelon, mango, kiwi, pineapple, pomegranate - like drinking a huge glass of fresh fruit juice. 

Attention to detail in high-end places like this always really impresses me and the presentation throughout the restaurant and meal here was just fantastic, with the yellow coat hanger theme ever present, It was worked into the menu layout, the cutlery boxes, the dishes, the receipt and even down to yellow loo roll in the bathroom. Clearly no expense had been spared on the tableware, with bespoke dishes for most courses, fresh boxes of cutlery appearing regularly and even down to niceties such as the geranium Aesop handwashes and creams as well as 'post-poo' drops (snigger). One particularly impressive highlight was the carefully lit service kitchen at end of dining room which added great showmanship to the occasion. You can see from the low table that absolutely nothing was left hidden.
Massively impressive.

Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable dining surprises of the year for me and it will easily make my top 5 meals of the year, I went in with little to no expectations and came away massively impressed. There was absolutely nothing I could fault, which is rare for me. The service was absolutely impeccable, with a mixture of servers and chefs presenting each course with the usual explanations you come to expect in a restaurant like this. Honestly, it was up there with the best service i've experienced - extremely professional yet at the same time it felt laid back and welcoming rather than stuffy and sterile like fine-dining often becomes. I was full of questions as the food being served was genuinely interesting to me and everyone had answers on the tip of their tongue.

The bill came to approx £200 which covered two of the 'degustation' tasting menus, cocktails before and after dinner, wine pairing throughout, coffees and tip. Excellent value for the quality of food and an extremely enjoyable 3 hours in the restaurant. I wouldn't hesitate to go back and whole-heartedly recommend it.
Man Behind the Curtain on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

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