We first went to The Man Behind The Curtain (henceforth to be known as TMBTC) back in September 2014. It was not that long open but it was already very ambitious, very modern and positioning itself at the high end of the Leeds dining scene. Fast forward a year and the head chef, Michael O'Hare, has become something of a sleb thanks to an appearance on Great British Menu, and the restaurant has scored a prestigious Michelin star. Interested to see what these changes had wrought in terms of the food, we duly got in line (it's now booked up months in advance) and, last week, finally returned to the top floor of Flannels department store.
Reading back, my original impression was not overwhelmingly positive. It had all seemed a wee bit style over substance. I expected this second visit to prove me wrong - after all, as well as impressing the Michelin inspectors, a number of highly regarded reviewers have swooned over O'Hare's food. But nope, my first opinion continues to hold true.
It is very, very clever cooking. It utilises modern techniques and on-trend ingredients (Iberico pork, anyone?) and the plating is creative and quirky. The problem is, the end result is not the sort of food that I want to eat. The seasoning, to my taste, was on the cusp of too much, such that one particular dish reminded me of nothing so much as a Pot Noodle, exploding with dusty umami. And texturally, a lot of the dishes lacked pleasing contrasts because of the overuse of sous-vide. I don't care what anyone else says, I think sous-vide fish (in particular) is slimy and damp and not very pleasant to eat. The flavours were, almost without exception, big and brash and bold and just a bit too much. There was very little that was subtle, or delicate, and star ingredients just got lost.
I also strenuously object to cleverness for the sake of it when it comes to cooking. So dessert was a chocolate and lavender mousse with a light, foamy vanilla custard spooned over at the table. Fine. Except that the custard was made with mashed potato. It tasted like custard. It looked like custard. Why on Earth bother to make it with mashed potato? I found it off putting. I approached the whole dish tentatively because I don't want to eat chocolate mousse and mashed potato. I suspect that such reticence makes me exactly the kind of reactionary customer that TMBTC does not want to darken its trendy doors. And that's fair enough. You can't appeal to everyone all of the time.
Let's talk about some positives. An early amuse of XO veal sweetbread in a steamed bun with pickled Shitake was a very lovely thing. I think that the sweetbread must have been pan fried - a rarity here - as it had a lovely crust that yielded into a perfectly cooked, creamy interior. It worked well with the spicing and was very prettily presented.
Presentation in general, although never going to appeal to stalwart traditionalists, was definitely artistic. While there were problems with this Iberico Pork main course (mainly that the accompaniments overwhelmed the little piggy) I do love the way it has been plated. That egg shell, incidentally, was edible, which was a nice touch.
And for all that I took umbrage with the chocolate and potato dessert, I adored the little passion fruit and praline cupcake that was presented as a petit four, complete with edible cupcake paper.
This was one of the few dishes where the flavours were balanced absolutely perfectly, with the sweetness of the white chocolate and hazelnut acting as a beautiful foil for the wincingly sharp passion fruit puree. I would have liked another one of these.
What else? D had the wine flight to match the tasting menu (there is no a la carte option here) and it was astoundingly good in terms of quality and value, with his particular favourite being a plum sake that did, indeed, taste heavenly. The service was absolutely flawless. The room itself is lovely - big, well spaced tables and the comfiest chairs that I think I have ever sat on in a restaurant. Overall, much to admire. And, indeed, I suspect a lot of people will enjoy the food. The fact that it was not to my taste was, probably, more about me than about the cooking.
There is certainly nowhere else in Leeds doing this sort of thing at the moment and, certainly, I would urge people to go along and try it for themselves. I wouldn't go back again myself - £70 a head is just too much for food that I know I am unlikely to enjoy, but I certainly wish Mr O'Hare and his very cool staff all the best - their presence in our city can only do good things for the already vibrant food scene. Let's just hope that mashed potato custard doesn't catch on elsewhere.
The Man Behind The Curtain
68-78 Vicar Lane
Top floor Flannels