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The Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds - 1 Michelin star

Rating: 93.
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In August this year I tweeted "I don't think many people realise how exciting and mature the UK dining scene has become, both in and outside of the capital". I made this statement on the basis of recent, extensive visits to the UK and many other visits in the past, and I honestly feel that the UK dining scene has shifted up several gears, especially in the north of England. For gastronauts, established names like l'Enclume in Cartmel and Northcote in Langho already made the journey up north more than worth their while, and Manchester's restaurant scene is booming. Since 2011, the number of restaurants and cafés in Greater Manchester has increased by a staggering 48%. Putting an extra spotlight on the restaurant scene in the north is The Main Behind the Curtain ("TMBTC") in Leeds.

TMBTC, unusually located on the top floor of Flannels designer clothing store, opened its doors in 2014 and it managed quite quickly to attract a following both within Leeds and in the rest of the country. Things really took off, though, after the affable and eccentric chef/owner Michael O'Hare appeared on the 2015 Great British Menu series. What also helped, was being awarded a Michelin star in the 2016 guide for Great Britain & Ireland, which was released in September 2015, while the series was still airing.

Michael O'Hare (b. 1981), who originally wanted to be a pilot, started his career as a professional chef in the early 00's, with a job in the kitchen of John Burton Race's eponymous restaurant at the Landmark Hotel in London (then 2 Michelin stars, now closed), but he also did stages at Noma in Copenhagen and at Nuno Mendes' Michelin starred Viajante in London (now closed). TMBTC isn't O'Hare's first restaurant venture - there were two previous  projects in York, namely The Blind Swine and Le Cochon Aveugle. The former is now closed and O'Hare is no longer involved in the latter. His main focus today is the TMBTC and The Rabbit in The Moon, a restaurant owned by former Manchester United stars Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, appropriately  located in the National Football Museum in Manchester.

TMBTC is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and for lunch Thursday through Saturday. The restaurant offers one multi-course tasting menu called "The Permanent Collection" (around 10-14 courses, priced at £60 - £90), available to book online through a prepaid ticketing system, which requires a £60 deposit per person. *I was recognised and I was served 15 courses in total, so there may have been one or more complementary dishes, but I don't know for sure.

First to emerge from the kitchen was a slider of xo sauce-lacquered veal sweetbread and pickled mushroom in a flaming red sriracha bun. A gorgeous little bite with well-caramelised sweetbread and a lovely lingering heat in the aftertaste. Quite the, with-a-bang, opener of this meal.

This was quickly followed by a piece of barbecued octopus, brushed with lemon butter, and topped with baby capers and little dots of smoked paprika puree. Lovely rich and flavoursome octopus, its richness balanced nicely by the sharpness of the lemon and the capers, and the paprika adding extra depth of flavour. 

Shortly after, we were served a foie gras doughnut dipped in cocoa butter and sprinkled with freeze-dried raspberry bits. Wonderful, intense flavours, the raspberries delivering an attractive sweet counterpoint. A tasty and fun snack followed: an edible transparent bag with prawn cocktail crisps.

The series of snacks was concluded by an originally presented dish of sea urchin (from Canada) on rice accompanied by a concentrated, sweet and sour soup. An exquisite flavour marriage, the soup enhancing the flavours of the sea urchin wonderfully, and the rice providing a nice little bite. Best of all however was the incredible long aftertaste of the sea urchin.

This was an outstanding and deliciously unconventional beginning of the meal, with surprising flavour combinations and creative presentation.

The dishes which followed were more substantial in size, starting with a raw Denia prawn with a barbecued head, the head juices to be squeezed out over the raw body meat. Yeah, yeah, I know you're supposed to suck the head, but I did as I was instructed, and I've come to the conclusion that I actually prefer it this way. The prawn had terrific sweet meat, and the barbecued head juices added an incredible, warm richness.

Even better was an amazing dish of pungent cold garlic soup served with some olive oil, chopped raw razor clam and covered with a tomato granita. A brilliant flavour combination. The garlic soup was packed with flavour, the intense garlic flavours coated the palate beautifully, the olive oil and granita adding extra flavour dimensions. The cold temperature was exactly right for this dish, and as with some of the previous dishes, the garlic flavours seemed to linger on the palate forever.

After these Spanish inspired dishes we travelled to Jamaica with TMBTC's take on "Ackee and saltfish", the salt cod being served here on a fried dumpling (texture-wise a bit like a deep-fried scone), and set off by a nicely spiced Ackee sauce, and ultra-thin and crisp chilli threads. Hidden between the fish and the dumpling were some crunchy cracker bits. An inspired and suave version of this traditional Jamaican dish, the cod being distinct and salty, the saltiness balanced perfectly by the dumpling and the tasty sauce, and the addition of the fruity and mildly spicy chilli threads completed the dish.

But back to Spain: Txangurro. Barbecued spider crab, not served in its shell, as it often is in the Basque country, but directly on the plate, covered by crisp sriracha-flavoured potato shards. The crab meat was superbly seasoned, with a pleasing heat, and had some crisp wonton bits mixed through. Also on the plate was a fried quail's egg, the yolk covered with a thin layer of bilberry jelly. An exceptional dish with terrific textures. The quail's egg offered a warm and soothing counterpoint for the spicy crab meat, but the latter still provided a nice little burn in the finish.

Two more fish courses followed. First up was a dish of sweet, raw langoustine tartare, served in a concentrated mussel broth and finished with parsley oil. An attractive flavour experience: first you get the clean sweetness and freshness of the langoustine, and this is followed by a wave of intense mussel flavours. Very clever. 

This was followed by "Emancipation", a dish inspired by fish and chips, and the very dish that landed chef Michael O'Hare a place in the 2015 Great British Menu finals, and which was served at the WW1 Centenary banquet. Placed in the middle of an alluring bowl was a piece of cured (with salt and sugar) and slow-cooked cod with nicely firmed-up flesh, topped with scorched gem lettuce, strips of crispy potato and crunchy shallots, and finished with a generous dusting of black vinegar and squid ink powder. All this was complemented by a cod dashi. A flamboyant dish, both in presentation and in flavour. Overall the flavours were complex, intense, with salty being the predominant flavour, but luckily the black vinegar wasn't just added for dramatic effect, but stopped the flavours from being too powerful or overwhelming. 

The meal continued with two meat courses. Tartare of aged rib of beef (aged for 160 days) was served with rendered beef fat, dried black olive crunch, green olive crumbs, and clear potato starch sheets. A magnificent pairing with staggering flavours, the bitters of the olives balancing the richness of the beef perfectly. Best of all though, was the heated plate on which the tartare was served, the heat releasing the flavours of the beef beautifully. 

Next there was unlikely but brilliant gathering of barbecued Iberico pork (secreto), a splash of Ajo Blanco sauce, and an edible white egg shell filled with a soft egg yolk, mock "cinders" made from smoked bread, and a marinated anchovy. A spectacular dish with striking, bold flavours, the Ajo Blanco sauce being spot on and with proper garlic flavours, certainly not the wishy-washy stuff, and providing a great synergy with the pork. Intelligent cooking on all levels. 

Time for dessert, first to arrive was an invigorating pre-dessert of coconut sorbet mildly flavoured with chilli and lemongrass, served with a cardamom and lemongrass-flavoured cream and an accompanying drink of plum and vermouth. Dessert proper was milk chocolate mousse flavoured with honey and lavender, a light potato custard, crisp silver-coloured chocolate "sheets" (a similar look to tinfoil), and a sprinkling of beetroot and vinegar-flavoured rice crispies. So far a playful and enjoyable combination, but made ingenious by the risky addition of parma violet ice cream (parma violet being the marmite of sweets), which was hiding underneath the chocolate sheets and custard. 

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain", is a line from the movie The Wizard of Oz, which served as an inspiration when Michael O'Hare had to pick a name for his restaurant. The line could not be more contradictory, because how can you not pay attention to this talented maverick chef and his food, food that grabs you from the start and only releases you after the last intricate bite. The design of the restaurant, the unusual and sometimes extraordinary dinnerware and plating, but above all the food, is shamelessly out of the box, occasionally slightly mad, but I just couldn't get enough.

Some of the food is clearly Spanish-inspired and the style of cooking does show similarities with that of chef David Muñoz, but having been to both Muñoz 3-star restaurant DiverXO in Madrid and at StreetXO in London, I can say that the differences are just as clear as the similarities. Today's menu displayed very accomplished cooking with inventive combinations that worked, and even the most challenging dishes (eg Emancipation and the chocolate and parma violet dessert) still managed to stay on the right side of gimmicky and displayed just the right level of refinement.

TMBTC is moving the a new location soon, so this is just the first chapter of a hopefully long story. But I hope that whatever happens, Michael O'Hare will not lose his ample sense of fun, because nothing tastes as good as fun.

Posted 01-11-2017


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