Last month Leeds was given the title of capital of casual dining but in the same sentence was criticised for its lack of fine dining and Michelin stars. If anyone was going to lay claim to the latter it’s the Man Behind Curtain – the new(ish) resident above Flannels. Run by bonkers rock star chef, Michael O’Hare, this is currently one of Leeds’ most exciting eateries and featured in the Observers top 40 restaurants in the UK.
We’ve dined here before, having enjoyed a leisurely Saturday lunch back in January. We enjoyed it so much we were keen to get back and bring a larger group with us to try out the evening tasting menu. For those who haven’t been above Flannels in any of its previous incarnations, it’s a funny old venue. Whilst Flannels is closed a door man hangs out in the empty shop to let you in and out and then you scuttle through the rails and clothes to get the lift up to the third floor. One wonders how on earth passing foot flow can happen when it’s so out of the way, but they must be doing alright as we couldn’t get a table booked until 9pm and we booked ages ago! The attic space is airy and covered in achingly cool art by ‘Scoph’ who is a friend of the restaurant. It’s very pop arty and felt a bit like an end of term show at the art college!
Being a tasting menu there was not much perusing to be done other than on what we would drink. We felt the £45 price tag for 6 paired wines was steep and so opted to create our own flight using the reasonably priced wine list, staring on aperitifs of sherry and luridly coloured violet gin and tonics. I didn’t give the food menu too much notice because I wanted the surprise as each course arrived. In all there are 11 small courses, each arriving with its own inimitable arty presentation.
For me the stand out courses were the introductory ‘snacks’ which included little pork scratchings pinned to a mini washing line in an edible bag and a delicate spoon of raw langoustine which was sweet and fresh. I think everyone’s favourite was the cod loin in squid ink. This mad dish was completely black and served on a black plate! It looked atrocious and yet had the most stunning textures and flavours. Soft cod was topped with crispy potatoes and seasoned perfectly with salt and vinegar. A very clever dish indeed as it played on the evocative qualities of taste associations – as your eyes have nothing to go on you have to rely on your sense of taste and smell to work out what on earth you are eating.
The presentation itself deserves a mention. Each dish was served up with precision and careful thought had been given to what plate or vessel would be used – most of which were individually crafted. My favourite was the splat plate that the hake cheek came served on, which made the whole dish look like an Andy Warhol painting!
Criticisms are very few. My main observation was that, compared to the lunch we had experienced, the food did feel very small and lacked a main dish to tie the whole meal together. Having said that I personally did not feel hungry when I left but I did probably consume more wine than food! What was noticeable in its absence was the bread course which had been one of the highlights of the lunch we enjoyed, so it was sad not to see it here. The boys did rush off to get chips after we had left the restaurant. I didn’t need to partake and I think half the reason they did so was because they’d been joking about it all night and so had chips on the brain! This got me reflecting though about the kind of meal this kind of restaurant provides. It’s not a slap up meal, but it is a cultural experience. It’s not every day that one is going to spend in excess of £100 on a meal that leaves you a bit hungry at the end of the night. But whilst our stomachs might not be full, our minds were. They were full of the unique taste experiences, full of the colours and shapes of the art on the wall, full of the way the lighting played with the presentation of the food, full of the intriguing views over the rooftops of Leeds and full of the sounds of the impeccable play list.
So all in all I am pleased that Leeds has somewhere like the Man Behind the Curtain, with its quirky and fun approach to food. I’m already thinking about who to go back with next so that I can start creating some new food memories. Maybe the Michelin star will follow, but who cares if not, Man Behind the Curtain is already rewriting the rule book on formal dining. In fact it’s totally ripped it up!!