There is absolutely nothing conventional about the experience of dining at The Man Behind the Curtain. It is avant-garde in every sense: in name, décor, location, people, ambient music and of course, the food. You just have to visit their site’s homepage to get a feel for what I mean – there is a cat with an astronaut helmet floating in space next to a giant open mouth with a man’s face inside and some other strange elements scattered around. Got the idea yet? Me neither.
This quirkiness translates into the actual space. First of all, the entrance. There isn’t one. It is located on the top floor of a men’s clothes shop so in order to get to the restaurant you need to get into the shop, go past aisles of jackets, shirts and shoes until you spot a grey steel elevator that will take you up to the restaurant on the 3rd floor. If you have a reservation for dinner, the shop will be closed by the time you get there so you need to knock on the glass door to summon a bouncer from inside to let you in. It’s like I am about to enter some secret parallel world, an exclusive club hiding away, disguised as a mundane clothes shop.
Once upstairs and out of the elevator, you enter a low-lit room with white walls scribbled on with black paint or modern paintings.
The people that work there are all dressed in black, have modern hairdos and were all probably born in the 80s and 90s (hence came into the world a good 1 or 2 decades after the music that was playing was conceived). They were amenable and professional if only a little detached. But that sort of goes with the experience. You are not there to be cuddled. You are here to be transported to a very contemporary realm.
I start with a Violet Gin & Tonic. It has a Parma Violet tone to it but it’s very pleasant and easy to drink.
We decide on the degustation menu and the standard wine pairing and the journey begins. This is beyond the sort of Alice and Wonderland feeling of magical theatre you get with modern food in other places, for example at The Fat Duck. It’s psychedelic, über-quirky, dark and moody.
This is holistic and not just about the food. In the background, music by Tom Waits, The Pixies and David Bowie set the tone. You get the picture.
The meal starts with some ‘snacks’ (their word): Olives inside a potato translucent bag which you have to dip in your own water for a few moments until the ultra-thin film starts to melt; raw langoustine with a honey and lavender sauce and a kind of salty crumble and frozen apple; a little ceviche parcel wrapped in pak choi leaves; and a slow cooked oyster with a mock pearl and escabeche sauce.
This is unmistakably ultra-modern and very clever food prepared with an extremely high level of skill. I wouldn’t do it justice if I kept describing the dishes in detail so I leave you with pictures and some general comments.
The starter was my favourite: beautifully cooked John Dory with intricate details all around which was followed by possibly the strangest of all the dishes from the degustation menu. A fake life-like eggshell next to a mound of a dark flaky powder that tasted of black pudding(?) covering an slow-cooked egg. This was the dish that most challenged my senses. I still don’t know whether I liked it or not. I couldn’t stop eating it, so I guess that says something. But every mouthful was full of confusion and hesitation. I suspect that is how the chef wants to make you feel with some of these creations.
We then had duck and then sweetbreads, which I had never eaten before. Loved both of those dishes.
The first dessert was my favourite dish. Wait, no… the starter was. Well both the starter and the first dessert were my favourites. This was a concoction of chocolatey and creamy textures that would please the most gluttonous of customers.
A delicious violet ice-cream dessert looked absolutely stunning on the plate. And just when we thought we had been duly spoiled, a creamy cupcake with freeze-dried bits of fruit topped it up perfectly and made a perfect pairing with a Maury Grenache Noir. Yum!
By then we were fully in the quirky mood this place evokes, suitably aided by the wines that kept coming with every dish.
How can I sum this up? The interesting thing about The Man Behind the Curtain is that whilst other top end places where clever food is served you are made to feel as if the food is made for your pleasure and your pleasure only, here it’s the other way round: I felt that I was there to observe a show, feel in awe with the food and the wits of the place but as a spectator. Whereas most restaurants set the stage for you, The Man Behind the Curtain performs on it.
Well worth a visit, as it is truly unique and has a sort of reverberation effect that never quite leaves you.
Where: Leeds, UK
Cuisine: Very modern, fine dining
Occasion: Fancy dinner
Rating: 4 stars
Would I go again? Probably not but it has to be done once