The Man Behind the Curtain review

The Man Behind The Curtain review

by Gemma Harrison 16 November 2015

Michael O’Hare set 2015’s Great British Menu alight with his unique style of cooking. Gemma Harrison headed up to Leeds to visit his restaurant, The Man Behind The Curtain.

View more from this series:

Gemma can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

Gemma studied Music at the University of Surrey, but her passion for food and wine led her to work firstly for an online wine, beers and spirits retailer and then Catering Services in the House of Commons. Outside of work she can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

Before you read any further, book a table at The Man Behind The Curtain. Do it now. Because at the rate Michael O’Hare’s restaurant is filling up, there won’t be a table until next Christmas. Got your reservation? Good, now read on . . .

As one of the people responsible for our coverage of Great British Menu this year (we’re no relation by the way), I was beside myself with excitement when the line-up of chefs was released. Because among the list of usual suspects was someone I’d been following with interest for some time: Michael O’Hare. After weeks of watching the other regions, finally it was the turn of the North East, and he hit our screens with a bang (and THAT barnet). Wearing his homemade sparkly apron he set the competition alight with his utterly bewildering, yet utterly brilliant dishes. After two days of watching him cook (and live tweeting along to the show), I knew I couldn’t wait any longer to make a reservation. It seemed this was a very timely decision – at the time of writing, evening bookings aren’t available until 2016 . . .

Michael bowled over the veteran judge Marcus Wareing (who spent much of the week looking decidedly confused and then completely dumbfounded when he tasted the food) and stormed through to finals week, where it felt like the other chefs hadn’t seen anything like it either. Winning the fish course, he cooked for Women’s Institute at the banquet, where the ladies seemed delighted with such an outlandish plate.

Michael O’Hare
Michael’s Great British Menu fish dish: Emancipation

If you’re not a Great British Menu fan (honestly, you’ve just missed the best series in years), then the only way I can describe Michael O’Hare is a man with the magical mind of Heston Blumenthal, the effortless cool and confidence of Marco Pierre White (the early years, obviously) with a splash of Jackson Pollock’s artistic style thrown in. His food is like nothing you will have seen before – and the best thing is that it tastes phenomenal. The Michelin Guide thought so too, and a week after his appearance on Great British Menu, he was awarded his first star. What a year that man is having . . .

In keeping with Michael’s style, the restaurant is equally outlandish. You enter through a designer clothes shop and take the lift to the third floor. As the doors open, you step out into a loft space that resembles more of an art gallery than a restaurant, with graffiti scrawled across the walls. It’s oddly reminiscent of Maison Bertaux in London’s Soho, where the little patisserie let Noel Fielding loose on the upstairs rooms (if like Fielding, he decided to sell his art, I’ve no doubt it would fly off the shelves). With a soundtrack including Pixies and Gary Numan, it was a refreshing change to the staid atmosphere of most fine dining venues. Who ever thought a restaurant could be like this? But strangely enough it works – in fact, it’s one of my favourite restaurant interiors ever.

We were presented with the menu, which in all honesty, isn’t really a menu. It gives the dictionary definition of ‘carte blanche’, that is to say, it offers the explanation as to why there is no list of dishes – it affords the kitchen creative freedom. As a diner, this initially sent me into a state of blind panic, partly because I like to know what to expect and partly because I was going to have to try and remember as much as I could when the dishes were presented for the purposes of this review. But on reflection, it was rather liberating. I’d somewhat spoilt my meal at The Fat Duck by looking up all of the dishes in Heston’s books beforehand, so I’d lost the element of surprise. To me, The Man Behind The Curtain is very similar to the Bray restaurant – the reaction you have to just seeing the dish, is that of astonishment, and after taking the first bite, you immediately look up at your dining companion, seeing your expression of total wonderment mirrored back at you.

There is a choice of two tasting menus for lunch and one for dinner, both with matching wine pairings available. As we were there for dinner, we had the ’12 sequences’ and I plumped for the matching wines as well. It’s not a cheap night out by any means, but I was surprised that the 12 courses were only £70, perhaps I’m conditioned by London prices, but for what you’re about to receive, it really is excellent value for money.

Our first course was a series of three snacks: Langoustine tartare (served on a spindly tree-like structure very similar to one I’d seen at El Celler de Can Roca), Sea urchin and braised octopus. Paired with Krug Champagne, it was a punchy start to a tasting menu and I’d have to say my favourite was the octopus, which was somewhat of a surprise considering my general dislike of it. For those who find octopus too chewy, braising really does make it all the more enjoyable. Next was a striking dish of Spider crab with quail egg and bilberry gel – the crab mixture reminded me of Michael’s dish on his recent Saturday Kitchen appearance (his take on Lobster Américaine). An incredible amount of flavour had been packed in and I would have happily polished off a big bowlful along with some more of the Txakoli that was served with it (a beautifully tart wine from the Basque region of Spain).

Graffitied art
Just one of the pieces of graffitied art in the restaurant
Spider crab with quail egg and bilberry gel
The Great British Menu cod dish reimagined for the restaurant

Another fish course arrived (I’d love to know where Michael gets his crockery from) and after taking a bite I suddenly realised it was his winning cod dish from Great British Menu. It’s made up of a number of elements: slow cooked cod, gem lettuce, crispy potatoes and shallots, cod dashi and squid ink powder, and really is the best version of fish and chips you’ll ever eat. The cod is beautifully soft, so that it yields with the touch of a fork and the squid ink powder also contains malt vinegar powder which works brilliantly with the crispy potatoes and shallots. We only realised half way through that the cod dashi had stained our lips, giving us a Goth-style makeover! The recipe is on the Great British Menu website, so one day, if I’m feeling brave, I’ll try to recreate it.

Our next course was completely unexpected – three stunning small plates of Veal sweetbread in XO sauce with sticky rice, hot and sour broth and Mongolian lamb and goat’s curd pancakes. Each plate was an absolute joy to eat, with a perfectly cooked sweetbread coated in scarlet XO, a pleasing numbing spice from the broth, and the lamb and goat’s curd was such a great combination that I’ll definitely be looking to cook this at home. This course was paired with a Riesling, the slightly off-dry nature of the wine matching perfectly with the aromatic and spicy flavours.

A delicate plate of Roe deer, winter truffle, Iberico ham and redcurrants was next, paired with a glass of Amarone (an Italian red made with dried grapes, giving an intense flavour). It was a taste of autumn, with the heady scent of truffle wafting up from the dish. Our final meat course was in a style that you’d immediately recognise as Michael’s – the black plate highlighting the splashes of white sauce. The main event was Iberico pork, with egg yolk, edible ‘shell’ and ash. Everything married perfectly and the ash was an excellent addition, almost adding a seasoning to the dish. The Valpolicella Ripasso wine match didn’t overpower the dish, and worked surprisingly well.

I have never been so disappointed to be told it was time for dessert, but luckily the plates the pastry section send out are just as wacky and delicious at the savoury ones. First up was another dish I recognised from Great British Menu – Michael’s second attempt at dessert, which featured 'Chocolate metal’, lavender mousse, potato custard and potato puffs with beetroot. Yes, you read that right: potato custard. When I was watching Michael serve this on the show, I wondered what on earth it would taste like. Turns out it’s delicious. The chocolate is tempered, shaped and sprayed silver to resemble metal, with the well-balanced lavender mousse sitting underneath, and the custard and potato puffs are added tableside. Our final course looked like a mini cupcake, made from chocolate brioche (hiding a liquid passion fruit centre) and topped with raspberry mascarpone. All of this was contained in an edible wrapper and we ate it all in one to avoid a passion fruit sauce disaster. Both desserts were served with an umeshu sake that had gorgeous flavours of plum and marzipan – it was so good, I ordered another.

Iberico pork with egg and ash
Michael’s second Great British Menu dessert of chocolate metal and potato custard

As I’m writing this review, I’m watching a Twitter conversation unfold between Michael and restaurant critic, Jay Rayner. Jay agreed with the discussion’s instigator (journalist, Tony Naylor) that food cannot be art. Yet Michael eloquently makes the case that it is, stating that when emotion is applied, it becomes more than just a craft (although, he says a roast chicken is indeed just dinner). I’m inclined to agree – his cooking is more than just food, it is strangely beautiful. I’d rather have pictures of his dishes adorning my walls than a mass-produced Ikea print any day.

I caught a few fleeting glimpses of ‘the man behind the curtain’ throughout dinner, his trademark hair now shorter and bleached, but he looks as cool as ever. If I were to sum up my experience there in just one sentence, it would be this: it blew my mind – and I can’t wait to go back and have it blown all over again.