Not An O'Hare Out Of Place
Can food ever truly be art? Not in that Tate Modern, installation-art type sense, but plates served in a restaurant. Y’know, things that are actually edible to the likes of you and I. Instead of standing behind a velvet rope in a gallery, does it make something less artistic if I can interact with, and indeed consume, it?
I ask this question because it’s something about the reputation Michael O’Haire has developed. Him of the simply amazing blonde amass of hair. It’s not the only thing, mind. His restaurant, Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds, has gained a Michelin Star not just for bombast and presentation, but for some formidable modern cooking. So what better way to treat yourself, than a birthday visit? After all, if you don’t love yourself, who will?
If ever such a reputation came with an inauspicious guise, MBTC is it. Off a side street in central Leeds, a folding door and small plaque greet you as the only clue to what’s inside. It’s probably the last time all night we referred to something as understated.
The outside gives way to a sparse interior. It’s somewhere between surgically minimal and a Manhattan solicitor’s penthouse. Granite sideboards for service that look more like something out of a Dexter kill room. Sleek, black marble tables interspersed through the room. Skateboard decks with the restaurant’s name and high-heeled shoes emblazoned across the walls. Waiters and waitresses are young with the men wearing Men-in-black style suits with trainers.
There’s an immediate sense that no aspect has been left to chance. Carefully orchestrated and cerebrally planned. It veers far away from the usual Michelin-Starred interior but does so in a way that’s no less ceremonial. It’s an opening salvo, a statement of who the restaurant, and by proxy, I presume Mr O’Haire, both are.
It starts with an aperitif before you’re seated. Picking your global influence is the only nod you get as to what to expect. Pick a homage like Peru or New York as a tip of the cap to what might hit your taste buds. Pineapple and scotch bonnet chilli goes from sweet Carribean beach through to warming tickle across your throat.
So confident in what they want to achieve, decisions are kept to a minimum. A simple black box in the middle of your table contains the set menu known as ‘The Permanent Collection’. It’s the only option when you book, so decisions are simply left to the wine you’d like to accompany your meal (or to have the matched wines and beers). There are some nods to what to expect, with mentions of Waygu, hand massaged octopus and Iberico pork, but for the most part, you’re merely presented with a list of core ingredients.
The style of cooking is as eclectic as the decor. It could loosely be described as Asian-inspired tapas but that does a disservice to the litany of different influences displayed throughout. Once the menu has begun though, the plates come thick and fast. The pace is well measured, but there are a lot of different elements to take in. It’s almost impossible to not be impressed at the scale of the ambition.
Small mouthfuls to start include a veal sweetbread slider with XO glaze. It looks like the Devil’s welcoming gift at a dinner party but tastes heaven sent. Soft sweetbreads with an umami burst from the loving coating of salty seafood XO sauce.
That Waygu beef? Ruby red jewels of buttery meat, flecked across an ornate plate mimicking the same intermittent stippling effect. Leafs of the essence of potato starch adorning it, like a post-modern anorak touted by a runway model at London Fashion Week. Olive juice bringing a natural saltiness to the meat, replacing the normal cornichon.
Salt fish and ackee is reminiscent of every cafe in Brixton in name only. A large plate that looks like a raver’s eyeball come 6am, is centred by a small iris of an inauspicious stack of disks peaking out from a vinyl of hollandaise-coloured sauce. It’s only when biting into the first mouthful that the sensation of my local neighbourhood comes flooding back. The sauce is a rich, creamy velvet of the ackee coating your mouth before giving in to the firm flakes of salt fish. It’s small and perfectly formed, but packs a wallop of taste into its small confines.
With so many courses, it’s only natural that there are a few less successful efforts as well. Langostine tartare comes presented in what I imagine are tadpole-shaped, silver spoons. They look like something altogether more unpalatable and only serve to make the slippery coagulation of shellfish slivers and relatively tasteless consomé start to trigger natural reflexes. It’s the one example where the stylised presentation gets the better of the cooking, and the diner.
There’s artful plating here but there’s also whimsy. My mother, able date for the evening, struggling to remove the childlike grin from her face at the violet ice cream that came with a milk chocolate and honey dessert. Inside a raspberry ripple of a plate, is the very soul of a packet of Parma Violets. It springs forth and reminds my mum of happy times and me of wanting to swap sweet packs with my sister.
I could wax lyrical about the Iberico pork with edible egg shell or the black cod emancipation in its jet black paint splash of a bowl. The later evoking all of the memories of long walks by the sea with a bag of fish and chips, whilst looking like something out of a fantasy film. Who knew black could be such an appealing colour for an entire plate of food?
And so we come full circle, with the question I opened with. Taken at its most base, art is defined as ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination’. To that end, it would be unfair to refer to the Man Behind the Curtain as anything other than a beautiful, contemporary form of art. Fortunately, it’s also a bloody tasty plate(s) of food.
The Man Behind the Curtain
Style as well as substance
The Man Behind the Curtain is quite the experience. Equal measures of highly stylised presentation with some incredibly refined and balanced cooking. Not every dish is a hit but, like any good album, the highs carry this to being a worthy visit for a special occasion.