Michael O’Hare is a man on a creative mission at his spectacular Leeds restaurant. Richard McComb reports
Pilot, art-lover, design geek, snowboarder, metalhead and mercurial chef: Michael O’Hare is a multi-skilled and uncompromising individual.
For one thing, he does not want diners to like everything he cooks at his year-old Leeds restaurant. O’Hare, from Middlesbrough, says: “I don’t want everyone to like it all. You’re not doing anything right then, are you? You’re just cooking mundane food.”
The 34-year-old has worked under John Burton-Race at the Landmark in London and at Seaham Hall in County Durham. He would prefer it, however, if commentators refrained from flagging up his stage at Noma.
“It’s not what we are doing here,” says O’Hare. “People like to draw on it and I think it’s kind of bullshit. I’ve been cooking for 14 years and I’d like to think that my achievements are my own and not down to a few weeks on the fish section at Noma.”
O’Hare won a following at the Blind Swine at York, but the move to Leeds made commercial sense: switching a city reliant on the tourist trade for one with a broader economic base.
Much has been made of the look of the Man Behind The Curtain (the title is a reference to The Wizard of Oz). The 40-cover restaurant, situated in a voluminous rooftop space at the top of Flannels, a men’s clothing store, is adorned with works and paint-splash wall decorations by friend and artist Schoph (“He spent two weeks making a mess on the walls”). There are cool, Greta Grossman-inspired lights and Danish Masculo chairs.
Pinning down O’Hare on the inspiration for the Man Behind The Curtain is tricky. He says: “The food, design and feel weren’t particularly based on what I wanted, but on what I hated and didn’t want. We made sure we didn’t put what I hated in there. There are no Edison filament lightbulbs.”
O’Hare studied aeronautical engineering at university, which might explain some of his creative flights of fancy. There are just two lunch services a week – Friday and Saturday – when there are three- and five-course menus.
The restricted lunch opening allows O’Hare and his compact brigade – just four chefs, including him – to deliver consistency with the elaborate evening tasting menu, which comprises 14 separate elements or courses, from ‘snacks’ through to ‘bon bons’.
Dinner is £65, or £110 with wine selected by restaurant manager and sommelier Charlotte Rasburn (formerly of the Box Tree, Ilkley). The pairings are fascinating, and include Kishinamien Umeshu Plum Sake by the Niizawa Sake Brewing Co with desserts.
He insists his food philosophy is simple: he wants to produce “food that looks good and tastes nice”. He adds: “I don’t think you have to say ‘I am inspired by ‘X’. That’s bullshit. Who has ever been inspired, ever? No one. I don’t think that’s how food works…
“I want things first and foremost to look great. Anyone [at this level] can make something taste nice. I don’t think it’s a massive thing to blow people away with something new as far as flavours go. There are only so many things in the world.”
A dish of salt- and sugar-cured cod loin, cooked sous vide, illustrates how the chef and his team have taken a food they love – fish and chips – and “tweaked it”.
The dish is based on a Nuno Mendes dish of cod tripe at Viajante. “It’s still the nicest mouthful of food I have had,” says O’Hare, who wanted to make the dish, complete with a dashi of toasted cod skin, true to his roots in the North East. “I tried to make it as fish-and-chipsy as possible. It’s really heavy on cod stock. It’s really vinegary. It’s quite salty.”
The crispy potatoes that conceal the fish are dyed with squid ink to mimic a blighted, black beach O’Hare remembers from his childhood. He says of the presentation: “It smells like fish and chips, it tastes like fish and chips, but it looks like Siouxsie Sioux. It would go down a treat at Whitby for Goth Weekend.”
Iberico milk-fed lamb is one of O’Hare’s top picks on the menu. “Some people get bellies, you might get a kidney, you might get whatever.” The meat is cooked on a “super-hot” barbecue, rolled in Gordal olive powder and paired with a Seville orange segment.
“A lot of our food is quite Spanish because that is the type of food I like to eat,” says O’Hare. He tasted the English counterpart of the Iberico lamb and it was not good enough.
There is an English playfulness in the desserts, such as a plate of delicious milk chocolate enlivened with violet ice-cream, and a potato and vanilla custard. It’s like a kids’ party and a trip to the seaside rolled into one. In Leeds.
Cascara with lemon curd and fresh sherbet
From the tasting menu
Cooked in its shell to absorb its juice and served chilled; mock pearl made from a purée of oyster, escabeche sauce, oyster leaves and vinaigrette
Veal throat, sweet and sour Hong Kong-style, ice-cold tomato and strawberry consommé
Salt- and sugar-cured; crispy potatoes, dashi of toasted cod skin, ink and vinegar
Secreto, ajo blanco and barbecue cinders; presa, sauce of roasted trotters and fino sherry, mustard
Lemon curd, fresh sherbet, white chocolate, honey and cascara water
Violet ice-cream, potato and vanilla custard, salt and vinegar rice, beetroot vinegar
The Man Behind The Curtain
68-78 Vicar Lane, Top Floor, Flannels, Leeds LS1 7JH