Tuesday, 7 March 2017
The Man Behind the Curtain, Leeds
I think it's possible to acknowledge the importance of fiercely experimental, bleeding-edge restaurant culture whilst at the same time retaining a healthy scepticism about the reality of it. When I think about the most groundbreaking meals I've had over the time I've been writing this blog (ten years now, incredibly) and the most enjoyable, well, the crossover area in the Venn diagram is fairly small. For every l'Enclume, which took modern British cuisine into new directions while still remaining enjoyable, there's an El Bulli, shock-effect food that never asked itself "just because we can, do we really think we should?".
From a distance, The Man Behind The Curtain seems like the kind of self-consciously "edgy" concept that should trigger alarm bells. Not just the ugly-cool website, the street-art décor, the location on the top floor of a clothes shop in the centre of Leeds like some kind of Primark speakeasy, but all of these things combined does suggest an operation focussing rather more on image and provocative PR than the food on the table. What a relief, then, and a delight, that nothing could be further than the truth - behind the ultra-hip exterior is a kitchen that knows exactly what it's doing, serving food that is that rarest of things - genuinely unlike anything else anywhere in the country.
The innovation started with the very first snack. This kumamoto oyster was dressed with strawberry kimchi, something completely new to me, and I suspect new to planet earth, although I reserve the right to be wrong on that. It was great, the strawberry pickle working really well with the briny oyster and the chilli kicking in as the sweetness dissipated.
There was, of course, the odd bit of wacky tableware. This silver tree had little spoons of raw langoustine in some kind of lime oil nestled amongst its branches, and I enjoyed it very much, although I should say that a friend on the same table got a spoon that had lost its silver plating and couldn't taste much other than an unpleasant fizz of metal. It's all very well using this arty tableware, but you need to know how to keep it...
This bright red mini-burger contained veal sweetbread in XO sauce, with mint, basil and kimchi mayo. The bun was one of those bao-style fluffy rice flour types, perfectly formed and lighter than air, and the Asian flavours within were balanced and distinct. As to why it was bright red, well, I'm not sure, but MBTC's use of unusual colours and textures to subvert expectations of ingredients is something that returned throughout the lunch. I've known chefs who work with a palette of techniques and flavour profiles but never known anyone with an actual palette of colours - Michael O'Hare seems to work a lot with bright reds and greys, colours which don't often exist in nature and therefore somewhat counter-intuitive to feature so prominently in a tasting menu. As I say though, despite all that, it was never less than enjoyable.
This was wagyu beef - pretty high-grade judging by the remarkably light colour (mmm, fatty) - with gordal olives, and topped with transluscent sheets of potato starch. The olive flavour was the perfect foil to the beef, and though it seems obvious now, the more I think about it the more I'm sure I've never had quite this combination before, demonstrating that even the less outré courses were subtly inventive.
More bright reds and greys and 80s pop-art stylings in this next course of spider crab, wonton skin and iberico lardo 'lasagne'. Hiding under a 'Sriracha cracker' (which, perhaps fortunately, didn't taste too much of the garlic-chilli sauce) was an indugently rich mixture of fresh seafood and iberico pork fat, and it either contained some dairy or the 'lasagne' was just a clever nod to the fact that it really tasted like it did. It was - like everything that had come before it - lovely.
I imagine there aren't many chefs who have ever thought to themselves, "I wonder what will happen if I spray-paint some prawns gold?" never mind having the confidence to serve them to paying guests but - incredibly - it didn't feel forced or unsettling at all, in fact they just ended up being the most straightforward element of the dish. Far more notable was the heady malt vinegar 'powder' which seasoned this fillet of cod in squid ink, the matchstick fries turning it all into a mini trip to the chip shop. As I'm sure was deliberate. Many fine dining chefs feel the need to riff on a famous regional dish, and I've had a number of versions of "fish and chips" served in various forms. Sometimes - like the "trip to the chip shop" hot dog invented by the Fat Duck and served at Bubbledogs, it's disgusting. But here there was no heavy-handed use of batter, just a confident bit of fish cooking, lifted with vinegar.
On this strange bit of tableware, resembling somthing from a Salvador Dali painting, were positioned some bitesize chunks of beef shortrib and a selection of three dipping sauces - mustard, coriander and black truffle. I think of all the dishes this was the one that did least for me - the beef was decent but not spectacular, the sauces (especially the truffle) good but they didn't make much sense of the beef, or indeed vice versa. Still, it was hardly a failure, and we all ate it without complaint.
Last of the savoury courses was some chunks of Iberico pork, packing the kind of depth of flavour common to only the very greatest pigs in the world, with something called "charcoal shavings" (which actually didn't taste bitter or burned at all, strangely - more like cereal) and a little pickled boquerone anchovy. My only complaint here, which perhaps carries back through the previous courses as well, is that there wasn't quite enough of it...
...because with no bread to fill up on, and portion sizes barely above a mouthful per dish, I'm afraid to say by the time we were taking receipt of this, the only dessert course, we were all still pretty hungry. This spectacular thing, of course, was fantastic in of itself - white chocolate spray-painted silver (well, why not), hiding a shocking purple lavender ice cream, a kind of cinnamon mousse and something called "potato custard" (just normal custard as far as I could tell, although a very nice custard), all as unusual and imaginative and arty as everything that had come before. There just wasn't quite enough of it all.
So that's why I have to deny the Man Behind The Curtain my very top mark. Perhaps having guests leave wanting more is entirely deliberate - I wouldn't put it past being some aspect of their food-as-art-project approach, some kind of comment on the shortcomings of globalisation and the western liberal model - but I would have liked some bread. Or at least a second dessert course.
That said, the fact remains there is nowhere doing anything remotely like this anywhere in the country, and it was undoubtedly a theatrical and exciting way to spend a few hours of a Saturday. I hesitate to say there's nothing like it in the world, because more well-travelled friends have noted that certain of O'Hare's techniques owe a certain debt to the fine dining scene in the Basque areas of spain - restaurants such as Arzak or Azurmendi who have a similar visual approach. But, well, it's certainly new to me. And I've been around a little while.
At just over £110 a head, as well, for plenty of booze and a couple of clever petits fours (a "cupcake" with edible paper and a liquid-citrus centre, and a salted caramel chocolate with caraway seeds), it is undoubtedly still great value. This perhaps accounts for the fact it took us a full ten months to secure a table (this lunch was booked in May 2016) but full marks to them for not raising their prices, which they surely could have done by now. And I can grumble all I like about portion sizes, but the fact is, the moment it was over I wanted to go and do it all over again. Which is probably all you really need to know. It is, after all said and done, a groundbreaking and uniquely visual restaurant serving futuristic fine dining on the top floor of a clothes shop in Leeds. And you may as well do all you can to get there, because there's certainly never going to be another like it any time soon.