Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Man Behind the Curtain, Leeds.

I was curious about this new restaurant The Man Behind the Curtain in Leeds. I'd had a few chats with chef Michael O'Hare on twitter. He seemed to be doing exactly the kind of food that we love and that we travel to Spain for. I think he was inspired by some places we've been to including 41º Degrees in Barcelona. I was a little reticent though, partly because of our dwindling budget but also because the style of cooking that he's attempting is incredibly hard to pull off. Aiden Byrne at Manchester House has sensibly retreated to safer ground with slightly more traditional dishes it seemed from my last visit and all the better for it. We decided to bite the bullet and go for it, so we took the train up to Leeds last Friday for lunch.
The restaurant is actually hidden on the top floor of Flannels department store. You have to know where it is, this 'secret' aspect of it is all part of it's charm. The Man Behind the Curtain is also an obvious Wizard of Oz reference but it seems most appropriate as we shall see.
As you leave the elevator, it's a bit of a surprise at first. This is clearly no conventional restaurant. It's a huge, bright, open loft, a cool, clean space with tables dotted very minimally around, there are little alcoves and graffiti type modern art decorate the walls. The attention to detail is all well considered, including the the cutlery boxes, with the question mark logo on them. Then you spot the chef himself with a silver apron and silver shoes, it's all part of his flamboyant theme.
We were greeted warmly by our host Charlotte and two glasses of cava soon followed. The service was absolutely brilliant all afternoon, really friendly and knowledgeable. We'd pre-requested the 10 course taster menu (which is £65) and got a few new extra courses too.
The first pre-starter of Onion Croissant with hot dog butter, ketchup and mustard was an absolute delight. It put me in mind of Tickets in Barcelona and wouldn't look out of place there. It's creative and witty too, most importantly the flavours were spot on. The bread is warm, soft and savoury and the hot dog butter was exactly as you'd imagine it should taste like. He should put this stuff in jars to take away, I could imagine tucking into it for my tea on Saturday night.
Next the Razor clam, Mussel and Dill arrived with some ceremony on a heavy metal branch like centrepiece. Because of it's impressive presentation I was expecting an intense burst of liquid flavour like you get with Ferran Adrià's Spherical "Olivas" from El Bulli or Eneko Atxa's truffle infused egg. Perhaps I was expecting too much. This was soft and subtle, sea-like, not unpleasant at all but it needed tweaking for us, with much more strength of flavour needed.
Beetroot, blackberry leaf and horseradish utilizes the clever trick we've seen before of using hot and cold in the same dish, very successfully in this case. As a recent beetroot convert, I loved the silky, warm, lurid magenta soup which contrasts well with the cool refreshing sorbet in the middle and the horseradish 'snow'.
There was an absolutely beautiful sashimi like Langoustine dish with lavender, honey rosemary and lardo (cured pork fat). "It's like a garden!" Mrs Bacon said. You'd get a hit of parma violets like lavender then a wave of the ham, but it's so delicate, fresh and colourful.
Next, an extra new course, Yàn Wō (燕窝). A playful recreation of the famous Chinese birds nest soup. This was our first real proper 'wow' moment. You couldn't fail to be impressed with the beautiful appearance of the dish but it was equally as strong in flavour, especially the broth which actually reminded me a little of those savoury noodle dishes at Manchester's Siam Smiles café. Perhaps not quite as spicy but still full of flavour. The bread was very good too, as was the butter.
Another real contender was the Black Cod, potato, shallot, dashi served on a futuristic sci-fi shiny black plate. This got some admirers on twitter the other night but also a few thought that perhaps this could be style over substance. I can categorically confirm that it most definitely wasn't. There is some fine quality cooking underneath all the quirky presentation. In this case, an absolutely gorgeous piece of flaky fish, expertly treated and with tar-like black powdered squid ink. The shallots were a nice touch, like those tiny little crunchy fish you get in Spanish tapas bars.
Another new dish (interestingly) was yet another favourite.
John Dory with orzo, chorizo and salty fingers was perhaps not quite as glamorous as the other dishes at first glance but the flavours and textures were absolutely perfect. The delicate, fresh John Dory with the creamy al dente orzo (rice-shaped pasta) is a contender for one of my dishes of the year, so simple and effective.
I think the "Secretos de Iberica" (ajo blanco, boquerones, salt baked potato, milk) may have been in part inspired by Spanish chef David Munoz of DiverXo fame. The presentation on canvas with the nod to abstract expressionism has all the hallmarks of a dish that if you didn't eat it yourself, you may suspect could be gimmicky. However yet again, there's some wonderful, intense flavours going on here. It was like Spain in one dish. The salty boquerones and the juicy, rich ibérico pork especially was simply stunning with just the right amount of fat and crunch of the skin. I looked on in envy as Mrs Bacon had one piece left, she said there was no way on god's earth that she was going to send any my way. You can't receive a better compliment from her.
The quality continued with Ox foie gras, wild rice. As obsessive foie gras aficionados we were looking really forward to this one. The ox cheek was gorgeously rich, flaky and powerful but the foie gras flavour was lost in the mix for us. Far better would be to just use proper grilled foie for that sheer luxurious taste that wasn't quite there. A foam here isn't necessary as it doesn't add anything to the flavour. This course worked so well with the sherry on the wine flight. (£25). I didn't go for it but they brought over various little snifters of each for us to sample.
Praline, brioche, freeze dried passion fruit, caramel comes in the form of a little cup cake which you put in your mouth in one go (including the paper). I'm pretty good at this sort of thing, having a big cake-hole. This was just brilliant, the sweet tropical liquid flavours explode in your mouth in one satisfying go.
I wasn't quite as into the next one, an artichoke dessert, "Cape Cod 1605" it was unnecessarily complex but without the flavours on the plate for me. His food is improved when he pulls back a little and simplifies things I think.
Our pick of the final snacks at the end was the 'Juniper, Quinine' light fluffy marshmallows served on a bed of ice. They're so light they disappear on your tongue.
In conclusion, we absolutely loved this restaurant, the food was very impressive. It seems to match our own tastes, even though it looks like something that could so easily be unsuccessful in the wrong hands, it  really works and with some style and panache. Most importantly, when you strip everything back to it's raw basics, chef Michael O'Hare can properly cook. There are no daft ingredients that don't work together, it's idiosyncratic but it has real substance using high quality produce. I noticed on twitter that he sources from specialist vegetable/leaf/herb grower Ken Holland (@northcountryken) who supplies Michelin star restaurants such as Raby Hunt. So they're using the best in the business.
Interestingly, here they're pointedly going in the opposite direction to what you might categorise as strictly 'local' and 'foraging' and I don't see many other places up here doing this right now.
A couple of other recent fans of this place that I've spoke to on-line concur. 
Food obsessive Adam Nichols (@dradamnicholls) put it like this; "(the) execution of the dishes was way beyond most places in the UK. Very modernist but in the right way." Whilst Thom Hetherington (@ThomHetheringto) knowledgeably and succinctly sums up like this; "It's great. Not some big slick operation, it's one man's vision. Brilliant, idiosyncratic & gleeful. Embrace it!"
Exactly right. You might not love absolutely everything here but his hit rate is still extremely high, yet it's not safe and for me that's one of the things that makes it so magical and unique.
It would be no exaggeration to say that this for us is one of the most exciting new openings in the North this year. It's unconventional and quirky, exhilarating and fun but above all the food was (for the main part) fantastic. We're already planning our next visit.
To see more photos in high res click here.
Man Behind the Curtain on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Restaurante El Faro de Cádiz.

As we saw with Casa Balbino, well known places don't always live up to their reputations. Thankfully El Faro de Cádiz most definitely did. A few different people had mentioned it as a 'must eat' so, as the sun was setting, we hailed a taxi from the Parador where we were staying in the scruffy seaside town of Cádiz.
As is often the case, we were there first there at about 8.30. El Faro de Cádiz is considered the best fish restaurant in Cádiz but we were here strictly for tapas. The long tiled room is standing only, I had a look at the menu. There are very few dishes I recognised as 'standard' which is usually a good sign. We started to order, and after tasting a few dishes, we ordered more and more, sometimes not even knowing exactly what it was we were getting....
Judiones con Ahumados. (Butterbeans). €2.75.
Gambas en Bechamel. (Prawns). €2.55.
Croquetas de Pargo y Bacalao. (3 Red snapper and cod croquettes). €2.55.
Pinchos de Langostinos envueltos en Bricks y Fritos. (Fried shrimp skewers). €2.55.
Salpicón de Pescados y Mariscos. (I think, a cold seafood salad, €2.75).
Canutillo de Pasta filo relleno de Aguacates con Salmon Ahumado y salsa de Maiz. (Pasta filled with avocado and smoked salmon, €3.45).
Piquillo rebozado relleno de chipirones y marisco. Battered pepper filled with squid & shellfish. (€2.90).
Pavia de Bacalao y Wasabi sobre una cream de membrillo. (Cod). €3.45.
Sardina Ahumada. €3.50.
Albondigas de Ternera con Rabo Guisado. (Meatballs, €4.80).
Everything here comes from the traditional classic side of tapas but there is no pretension, just great simple food, executed extremely well. If you're in Cádiz, El Faro is an institution you must definitely visit.

*Our final bill came to €42.75 including drinks!