68-78 Vicar Lane
Top floor Flannels
0113 243 2376
“You’ve got to review The Man Behind The Curtain,” Kenny Atkinson wrote to me.
Who am I to disagree with the man who’s just won Newcastle’s only Michelin star? He didn’t have it then, of course – this was months ago. The buzz amongst chefs about Michael O’Hare’s extraordinary, mad, flamboyant, exquisite cooking, just on our doorstep in Leeds, has been going round chefs’ circles ever since his restaurant opened last year.
Leeds is only down the road, when the train service runs on time, and there was something compelling about the bizarre setup of O’Hare’s restaurant, set on the third floor of an upscale clothing shop called Flannels. So we booked – boy, do you have to book: a sign on their website says they have no Saturday reservations until 2016.
Now that O’Hare has joined Atkinson as the second new North East star in the 2016 MichelinGuide (not that I don’t have severe reservations about that book, but it’s important to chefs, and it sure packs in the diners when a place gets recognised) the queue will grow longer.
I know Leeds isn’t really in our North East, but O’Hare just won the North East heat of Great British Menu, and he also hails from Middlesbrough, so he qualifies, and four Michelin starred-restaurants in our region sounds better than three – Manchester has none at all.
With raven hair that would look at home in a Mötley Crϋe video (last year it was peroxide blonde), and a sparkly silver chef’s apron, O’Hare creates wildly imaginative and riotously plated dishes that look stunning, bizarre and taste delicious all at once.
In the Great British Menu show, judge Marcus Wareing (whose 2 Michelin starred restaurant in London I found distinctly underwhelming when I visited a few months back), looked like a man who’d walked into the wrong dream when first faced with O’Hare. By the end of the week, judges and viewers were won over.
In The Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain turned out to be a fake: Michael O’Hare is the real deal, one of the most exciting chefs working in Britain today.
The lift in Flannels spat us out into a hyper-modern art gallery, or perhaps a catwalk in the Capital City from Game of Thrones – some of the waiting staff are impossibly poised. Or maybe it was a scene from A Clockwork Orange – large canvasses of graffiti by O’Hare’s artist friend Schoph break up the space, along with modern sculptures. There’s heaps of natural light and a 90s indie playlist on the radio.
At lunchtime there are a couple of shorter tasting menus with bonkers titles like “Inception of a spacecat in black” or “Marc Bolan wasn’t a welder”. We opted for the full dégustation (£65 a head) and waited for the fun to start.
What followed is certainly one of the most interesting meals I’ve had in many a long year, and, for the most part, one of the best. When it was good, it was sensational, as with three individual fish starters served all at once.
Hake cheek “pil pil” was a sublime fishy nugget hiding under a thick emulsion of squid ink, garlic and some sort of meaty broth. A piece of perfectly tender native lobster was paired with a chive mayonnaise that glowed green, and a spider crab dish sported a clever disc of bilberry jelly which nipped all the richness in the bud.
|Pressa and secretos of Iberian pork cooked over coal, boquerone anchovies, smoked Arlington white, cinders|
This was a fish-centric menu. Of eight savoury dishes and snacks, only one was unadorned by something from the sea.
|Scottish langoustine, mussel consomme, parsley oil|
If the ocean was one theme, the colour black was another. In the gents, the loo-roll is black; in the restaurant, squid ink in various states is used to create some startling presentations. The payoff is that the flavours are often familiar, almost comforting. As soon as you taste, uncertainty becomes delicious familiarity.
This was the case with a dish of black cod with crispy potatoes that was essentially fish and chips as reimagined by Tim Burton. The texture of the fish justified the invention of the sous vide bath, the dashi stock light but humming with umami, while the black salt and vinegar powder that covered the whole thing was addictively brilliant.
There was a lot happening on some plates; to like it all is perhaps asking a lot.
One called “Electric Daisyland” pitted beautiful scallop, crevette and a sensational veal sweetbread against a spicy XO sauce that fairly throttled the other ingredients into submission.
No such issues with desserts, a couple of which were terrific. Bread made its first appearance of the afternoon as a sourdough vehicle for some swoon-worthy chocolate crème, which was then adorned with a clever roasted white chocolate tuile and - wait for it - tiny nuggets of crisped pork rinds, tasting somehow of popcorn. It’s clever, fun, and like the best Nutella on toast you’ve ever had.
The last thing we ate may have been the best. A down-in-one tiramisu mini-cupcake with a liquid centre and nifty edible wrapper. I could have had more of these. Lots more.
The wine list is concise, but also one of the least daunting I’ve come across from a restaurant with such ambition. There is a fair choice at under £30 per bottle and a good selection by the carafe. We enjoyed the very reasonable Eric Louis pinot noir. Sweet and sour Umeshu plum sake was a marzipan-laced delight with our desserts.
Service, apart from one instance of a waitress bluffing a question about one of the dishes, was friendly, knowledgeable and relaxed, with chefs bringing a number of the dishes to the table.
There is an admirable attention to detail; we ate from beautiful but strange plates, using implements so delicate they might have been crafted by elves.
|Mongolian crispy lamb pancake, dragon egg cucumber|
|Buffalo mozzarella ice cream, basil granita, strawberry, apple, marigold|
He has spoken about not being a slave to the time and place he finds himself in. The strongest influence is probably northern Iberian, although you get the impression that O’Hare is someone who defies convention and classification, so if he read this, he’d probably change the whole menu to classical French overnight.
His food is not only delicious, it’s alive with imagination; even when it doesn’t quite work there is much to admire. Take Kenny Atkinson’s advice: you really must go.