Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.
365 days ago, my life and mind-set were very different; and mentally, I was in a place I can safely say I hadn’t prepared myself to be in. As a result, 365 days ago, ‘The Octopus Diaries’ was officially born; and I started a journey that allowed me to write and explore my passion for food. For want of a better word, it saved my sanity and, to date, continues to do so.
Unfortunately in life, some things do change. Thankfully, some things do not.
Cue a wavy screen, ‘Lost’ style flashback…
365 days ago…
“This post should really start back in 2015, when an interest in The Great British Menu turned into intriguing watching in the form of one ‘Hair Metal Chef’ representing the North East. The level of creativity and imagination that went into Michael O’Hare’s dishes was nothing short of awesome, and I knew full well that a visit to his restaurant – The Man Behind the Curtain (TMBTC) would be on the cards. Needless to say it is still there…and based on this visit, I can assure you it will not be going away!
However, I soon realised that after capturing his first Michelin Star in 2015, it was going to be a little more difficult to get that sought after reservation. Consequently, when I heard he had opened another restaurant in Manchester, I was in there like a shot. Named after a Japanese fairytale, The Rabbit in the Moon is a venture from the team at The Man Behind the Curtain, but with a focus on East Asian cuisine.”
Needless to say I fell in love with the restaurant, its randomness, and became a fan of the ‘Space Age Asian’ concept.
365 days later…
And I find myself an hour further North. It’s a strange and slightly emotional feeling to be stood here. I’ve waited 6 months. Actually that’s a lie. Based on my trip down memory lane above, my thoughts were clearly with this restaurant over a year ago.
Named after the 2005 song by rock band Valient Thorr, although I also quite like the theory that it was inspired by the line – “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” from the Wizard of Oz (I guess only one man truly knows!); having recently undergone an impressive facelift, I will say, it is a little difficult not to pay attention when you enter TMBTC. Windowless; the ultra-modern, mirrored yet spacious interior exudes elegance and perfection. Throw in some quirky little ‘devil dudes’ and branded skateboards, and as I sit and sip my equally stylish kumquat and cardamom infused G & T, the experience already feels like a form of escapism. You’re not in Leeds. Instead it feels like you’re awaiting the launch of the space shuttle to Michael O’Hare’s imagination and own, unique culinary planet. That’ll be T-15 minutes and counting then…
Up until relatively recently, the single dining option has been “The Permanent Collection” (£60-£95pp); a set tasting menu of between 10 and 14 ‘sequences’, selected by the Chef from an overall list of approx. 21 courses If you’re like me, we’re approaching utopia. If you have an aversion to not knowing what is going to appear in front of you, it may well be worth proceeding with caution.
A series of vibrant bar snacks, demonstrate the playful direction of the menu. Crispy soft shell prawns are dusted in a raspberry powder and come accompanied with a thin edible-film branded bag filled with pork scratchings. While the artistic slider of a vivid red sriracha bun with XO sauce and veal sweetbread, provides a moreish mouthful of lingering heat.
The creative char siu octopus hot dog is not a new one on me; a formal introduction at ‘The Rabbit in the Moon’ last year, provides the foresight that this barbecued squid ink bun delicacy, is to be savoured. However, it’s the single bite of spider crab lasagna that literally bursts with flavour, which leaves me under no illusion that the dishes to follow, are going to be something very special indeed.
As you take your seat, a single, simple branded box awaits you – I have to say it feels like I’m at the centre of an elaborate magic show, further assisted by the arrival of the Sommelier who is rather snazzily, dressed in a star-covered suit. At this point, I’m not sure whether he is there to perform a card trick or to pour wine, although it quickly becomes apparent it is for the latter.
The decision to opt for the wine pairing at £45 per head is made easier, having already paid for the tasting menu at reservation, (although looking back, to have attempted to select a single bottle to have matched the dishes that followed, even with advice, would have proven difficult). And while there are certainly a few interesting choices, the five glasses that follow are well matched to the accompanying plates.
If you’re going to kick off a tasting menu in style, then this would be the way to do it. Served in two courses; a beautiful Spanish Dénia Red Prawn is laid bare, having been flattened to within a millimetre of its life. It’s a dish to linger over as you delicately peel the layers from the plate. To add to the pleasure, minutes later its roasted head arrives and all thoughts of even attempting to eat this elegantly, go flying out of the non-existent window in the best way possible.
As dish three approaches; namely tomato soup in a white moon crater – I realise that my initial thoughts were correct, and I have now officially landed on Planet MOH! Taking the Ajo Blanco to extremes, the popular Spanish chilled soup is served as a granita. There is, in fact, no red tomato in sight. Instead, the clever creamy in flavour and colour, palate cleanser is a stunning bowl of frozen tomato, basil and garlic. I’ve only ever experienced this ‘wizardry’ when LN2 has been in the house or a ‘Pacojet’, either way I really can’t explain how good this dish is…it’s simply one to experience.
Travelling 4500 miles west, dish four takes on the traditional Jamaican dish – ‘Ackee and Saltfish’. Upping the spice level from the previous Spanish plates, the salty cod is served on a fried tripe dumpling, accompanied with a delicately spiced, bright yellow (sunglasses are optional!) Ackee sauce, and topped with crispy chilli threads. With a multitude of textures and perfectly balanced salty, spicy and fruity flavours going on, it’s like a party on the plate and the palate.
One of the dishes I have been waiting for, makes its appearance next; ‘Emancipation’, is Michael O’Hare’s signature dish, and is inspired by fish and chips and the landscape near Redcar, which he described as his “industrial home town” in the 2015 series of Great British Menu. A truly elaborate dish both in plating and colour, it ensured him a place in the finals and he subsequently went onto cook the fish course at the Women’s Institute Centenary Banquet.
While the banquet course was ‘plated’ on a canvas, this version arrives in the centre of what I can only describe as, essentially an ink splodge with sides. It’s rare I would use the word ‘exquisite’, but for the plating of this unique dish, I’ll roll it out from my vocab list. Ok…as bowls of food go it’s not the brightest, but what it lacks in colour, it makes up for in flamboyancy and flavour. A cured and slow-cooked cod loin is topped with scorched gem lettuce and julienne strips of crispy potatoes and shallots. Accompanied with a salty cod dashi and finished with a dusting of black vinegar and squid ink powder, the aroma alone is enough to evoke memories of sunny days at the seaside. The one downside; if you’ve ever used one of those charcoal face masks, this course has a very similar effect – which leads me to a memorable visit to the ladies room.
Apologies, at this point we briefly leave the world of Michael O’Hare, for a snapshot into the world of a fidgety cephalopod…
Rather disturbingly this little trip is now filed in the confines of my mind, as one of those stories you pull up at a party after copious amounts of wine have been consumed, and you’re all trying to out do each other with amusing anecdotes. Needless to say, the yellow toilet roll in TMBTC turns out to be the least of my worries!
I am ashamed to say I have a few issues in life; an inability to not fiddle with things would be one. So when I enter the toilets and spot a peculiar panel on the wall, it seems only right (purely for the purpose of investigative blogging), that I have a play around. With one option entitled ‘kids’ this clearly seems an apt button to press, I mean what harm can a ‘kid’ do? Yet in the manner of Guardians of the Galaxy and in hindsight, it really should have been labelled with a warning sign of ‘Baby Groot – don’t push the death button’ – ha ha! Envisage water jetting onto walls, floors, doors (I did clean up), and me waddling back to the table in the manner of Frank Spencer going “Ooo Betty…I think I wet myself”, and you are somewhere close to imagining the scenario that unfolded!
Anyway, more importantly, let’s return to the food, shall we…
The Permanent Collection continues with three meat courses. The first being a tartare of 100 day dry aged rib of beef, served with black olives and a green olive crumb. Topped with transparent potato starch sheets, that waft gently in the air con breeze, it’s a dish of pure beauty. One to be admired before you go in for the attack. And one to be savoured, as the bitter, saltiness of the olive balances beautifully with the rich beef.
The next course comes as a welcome surprise, and I guess, is a new addition as it doesn’t appear to be an option on the ‘sequences’ of the tasting menu. At first glance, I will say that it looks more like a raspberry crumble, perhaps that’s the point – but on closer inspection mainly through devouring the contents of the plate – the squab pigeon in rhubarb hoisin, accompanied with enoki noodles and prawn cracker powder, is inspired. Texturally, it’s perhaps not my favourite dish, and while I do find it a touch on the salty side, the extraordinary combination of flavours is simply stunning.
I’ll make reference to my statement at the beginning, although will tweak to say, if you’re going to finish off the meat courses in style, then this would be the way to do it. An actual ‘work of art’ on a plate; a spoonful of garlicky Ajo Blanco sauce has been casually thrown/drizzled. While carefully positioned as a culinary centre piece, with the welcome support of four pieces of blushing barbecued Iberico pork – an edible white egg shell filled with smoked bread, hides the secret of a soft egg yolk that slowly oozes out once the shell is broken. I mean…seriously, if you’re going to essentially re-create an exceptional brekkie of bacon, ‘dippy’ egg and soldiers then this would be the way to do it! For this dish alone, I would make the 4 hour trip to Leeds.
A refreshing coconut, lemongrass and chilli sorbet is served with a creamy cardamom and lemongrass soup, as a palate cleanser and pre-dessert.
The psychedelic finale sends my memory racing back to The Rabbit in the Moon, and the portrait of David Bowie that grabs your attention as you enter the restaurant. Because if ever there was a nod to Bowie’s alter ego – Ziggy Stardust, then this dinnerware would be it. And while the plate selection steals the limelight a little, the centrepiece of tempered chocolate with parma violet ice cream, and a liberal sprinkle of beetroot powder crispies, is a playfully delicious triumph of a dessert.
And although I’m sure you’ve had enough of my ramblings, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t briefly mention the petits fours. Arriving in the same style as the initial bar snacks, the sweetbread slider is replaced with a raspberry and chocolate macaron, while the mini iced doughnut and Pornstar Martini bomb complete what will be a memorable meal for years to come.
- From the suited ‘Starman’ Sommelier, to the welcoming front of house team, and chefs who escape the heat of the kitchen to deliver these impressive dishes, all are knowledgeable and clearly well versed
- I am all for a bit of ‘Modernist Cuisine’, as long as it doesn’t take anything away from the produce or the dish itself. In the case of TMBTC, it adds, and its a pleasure to experience such creativity whether it’s through cooking methods or plating.
- When this restaurant gets into full swing, the dining atmosphere is electric. Full stop.
Would I recommend The Man Behind the Curtain?
As I fall back to Earth I will assume that you know what my answer will be. As with ‘The Rabbit in the Moon’, a comprehension of the type of dining experience you will receive, is important. Achieve this, and I assure you, that you will not be disappointed. With unique dishes that are beautifully creative both in presentation, and more importantly with ingredients that combine spectacularly in front of you, it is quite simply a restaurant that should be experienced to be believed.
And while I can guess your next question…let me just say, to compare the two restaurants would be like comparing your children – nigh on impossible, but secretly you have your favourite – ha ha! However, based on my previous dining experience, and the fact that Michael O’Hare is currently splitting his time between the two, I have a very sneaky suspicion that “a very good restaurant in its category” accolade will finally soon be heading Manchester’s way.
So here’s to the next 365 days, the next chapter of The Octopus Diaries, and hopefully a return trip to Planet MOH in the not too distant future.
Sun – Mon | Closed
Tues – Weds | 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Thu – Sat | 12.30pm – 2pm and 6.30pm – 8.30pm
Address | 68-78 Vicar Lane, Lower Ground Floor Flannels, Leeds, LS1 7JH