Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum had: Raw langoustine in a mussel consomme; Bag of pork rinds seasoned with yuzu and olive powder; Hake cheek, pil pil; Txangurro spider crab, quails egg, bilberry gel; Salt and sugar cured cod loin, crispy potatoes, dashi of toasted cod skin, ink and vinegar; ‘Electric Daisyland’ prawns; Iberico pork, anchovy, BBQ cinders, mustard, smoked egg yolk, edible egg shell; Mozarella ice cream with basil and strawberry; Crispy white chocolate, olive oil, chocolate cremeux and pork rinds; Tiramisu cupcake
We never got the chance to sample ‘hair metal chef’ Michael O’Hare’s potatoes in ash at his former restaurant The Blind Swine while we (and he) were in York (although its miniscule sister restaurant Le Cochon Aveugle, just up the street from our York flat, was more notable for its washing lines of lingerie than its food), but since it opened last summer his latest venture here has become Leeds’ most intriguing fine dining experience.
The food at The Man Behind The Curtain has a distinctly more Spanish feel than O’Hare’s more Francophile York ventures, but this is about as similar to a hearty bowl of paella as a Picasso to a Murillo. O’Hare here is more influenced by the weird and experimental ‘New Basque’ cuisine of internationally acclaimed restaurants like Argatz and Mugaritz than he is by more traditional Hispanic fare. He describes the restaurant’s ethos as: ‘To cook as an expression that is pleasing to the eye and mouth, taking techniques from peers and inspiration from the arts, music and contemporary culture. To pull away from trends and run the risks that come with that.‘ Fortunately, the terrible design of the website from which that quote is taken is not an indication of the artistry of the food, which is genuinely full of creative imagination and ambition.
From the moment the waiters bring out a shining silver tree with spoons of salty langoustines in mussel consommé hanging off it like Christmas decorations, you know that this going to be fun. Like its Spanish inspirations, the food here is so artistically presented that it often doesn’t really look like food at all, with a liberal use of squid ink to create dramatic monochrome dishes to contrast with the occasional splashes of bright colour strewn across the plates like the graffiti inspired artwork on the walls.
Yes, a lot of effort has gone into some bold and creative presentation, so it’s refreshing (and maybe even a little surprising) how pleasing it all tastes. The tree of langoustines looks great, but it is also a perfectly judged mouthful of salty oceanic flavours, enough to make Professor Plum’s fish allergy more of a disappointment than usual. (Although even here the restaurant’s inventive alternatives set it far ahead of other tasting menus who failed to cater for the same issue with the same degree of prior warnings). Only in the rather sticky, chewy edible eggshell served as part of the Iberian pork dish does it feel like a little bit has been sacrificed in terms of the textures of the dish in order to make it look good. (Although I do admire the level of commitment to having everything on the plate be edible).
The Man Behind The Curtain is at its best when it really pushes the boat out and gets creative beyond the usual artistically presented fine dining experience. The ‘Electric Daisyland’ prawn course is a perfect example. Served with the flower of the Acmella plant, which the menu describes as like a mild novocaine, the diner is advised to bite into this before eating the dish. The plant contains spilanthol, which affects the mouth’s nerve pathways that produce saliva. Essentially, the effect is to simultaneously numb and heighten your flavour senses and give everything in the dish an electric tingling sensation. It’s like nothing I’ve ever been served before and presented a truly original dining sensation.
Dessert was preceded by a mozzarella ice cream (as you may remember, cheese ice creams have always seemed to me an interesting conceit) accompanied by basil and dried strawberry. It was a great way to reinvent the flavours of a mozzarella salad, but as a palate cleanser those flavours may have belonged better towards the beginning of the meal than the end. The star of the dessert, though, was something that can only be described as upmarket nutella and pork scratchings, a dish that it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with but which works brilliantly. Consisting of a chocolate cremeux to spread on soda bread with pork rinds and oil and a beautifully worked, incredibly thin wave of crisp white chocolate, it’s a great way to play with the combination of salt and chocolate.
If the mark of a good restaurant experience is getting things beyond not only what you could make yourself, but also what you could even imagine yourself, then The Man Behind The Curtain is onto a winner. It’s definitely somewhere I’d be keen to back to, if only to see what O’Hare comes up with next.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I booked this for our anniversary months back, after Mustard brought it to my attention and I had a couple of goes at navigating the website. One thing I really appreciated was being rung on the day to discuss my fish allergy, which meant I could explain to them that white fish was out, but oily fish sauce was in. And they catered for it! My substitute dishes (a sort of tempura samphire for the langoustine, and a soaked bread with a fish texture for the cod) had the same level of theatre and presentation as Mustard’s menu dishes, which I really appreciated.
Speaking of theatre: you enter through a menswear shop, and the whole restaurant has a smokey scent – not precisely woodsmoke, but something fruitier and tangier. The only issue was that it sometimes overpowered the wine (the pairings are worth it, though for such a posh restaurant the wine list is impressively affordable should you go for a bottle), but never the food.
This is definitely a place we’d go back again. It’s a real experience, and the fact that the menu changes each night means it’ll never be the same experience twice. I’m especially curious to know if they change the restaurant’s perfume.