He’s had a busy year, Michael O’Hare. Following a successful stint on teatime telly, a Michelin star, and all of the publicity that goes with it he’s well and truly in front of The Curtain – luckily, despite all of the self-effacing humility, his food – and the restaurant as a whole – still manages to flourish under the many spotlights honed in on it.
Carte Blanch is the order of the day here, their interpretation of the term is the first thing that greets you – “1. To allow full creative freedom. 2. To showcase what we feel is right for now.” – but that goes without saying – looking around the restaurant you hardly get the impression that anything about the place is a result of creative compromise. Decor is eccentric and erratic; as the lift opens (the restaurant occupies the loft in a posh clothes shop, come on, keep up) a swarm of sculpted hands throwing up the devil horns protrude from the walls, all hailing the restaurant’s name.
The dining room appears to have been decorated with super-soakers full of Dulux, with the odd bit of barely-legible typeset text peppered around, as if Hunter S Thompson had been given the brief to design those “Live, Love, Laugh” wall-stickers. It’s a little heavy-handed and 2006-The Prodigy but it’s fun, and while the actual writing isn’t clear, the message is: this isn’t your typical Fine Dining restaurant.
Menu choices are limited to 7 or 12 “Sequences” (Priced at £42 and £70, respectively) and an optional wine pairing (which adds £45). My knowledge of wine pretty much ends at being able to discern whether it’s Mulled or not, but the sommelier describes each in (a Champagne, 2 white, 2 red and a dessert wine) an informative, accessible way without being patronising or trudging through superfluous tidbits. The added value to the experience of each course – not to mention the size of the pours – make it very good value.
I was familiar with some elements of the dishes from O’Hare’s recent kitchen takeover at MEATliquor, on the week he received his star; some shone brightly (the simple, subtle brilliance of a pickled tomato, or the salt & vinegar puffed wild rice seasoning and adding depth to the fries) while others bombed (there was a parsley emulsion which remains one of the most revolting things I’ve ever tasted) – but judging that as a true a reflection of his regular output would be like judging a band after hearing them for the first time at a festival.
Here, where he’s got headline billing, all the fan-favourites are ceremoniously recited; Cod Loin with Dashi, Crispy Potato & barbecued Little Gem, all blacked out with Dehydrated Salt & Vinegar Squid Ink, as seen on TV™; the signature Ibérico Pork, Smoked Egg Yolk, Charcoal Cinders & Anchovy, its presentation so familiar it’s almost become the restaurant’s De facto logo. It’s not by any means a case of “shut up and play the hits” though, new material is lapped up rather than endured, and it clearly shares a lineage with the early stuff.
The 12-sequence serve as a tour through O’Hare’s influences – both in the ingredients and the techniques – paying particular homage to Spain and the Far East. A trio of snacks start the meal; Sea Urchin with parsley oil, milky Raw Langoustine, and slow-braised Octopus. Later on another set of snacks arrive which are essentially a very posh version of a takeaway’s mixed starter platter; Buttermilk Sweetbread in XO sauce, Crispy Mongolian Lamb in near-translucently thin pancake, and a Hot & Sour Beef Consommé, so unassuming in appearance yet intense and satisfying on the palate that it’s like a Tardis of flavour.
It’s dishes like this Consommé that demonstrate just how accomplished the actual cooking is here, and this technical proficiency means that the kitchen are afforded carte blanche to experiment with elements of dishes beyond taste and texture, resulting in reference to culture both pop and high.
References evocative on a level so much higher than simple nostalgic recalling of flavours (Cinnamon = Christmas, Seafood = Seaside) and recall fantasy and literary scenarios; Fish & Chips with its endless shades and texture of black is all at once Metallica’s Black Album and Alexander Wang couture; Sweetbreads glisten on top of a plate contoured like the vinyl stretched over the seat of a sports car; the Giger-esue tentacle spoon that serves octopus is left smeared with bright pink paprika emulsion, like a menthol cigarette or champagne flute teleported in from a much sexier scenario than my cloudy weekday lunchtime.
Back to the black on black on black Cod Loin – You’re essentially digging your fork into a black hole and eating whatever comes out; you don’t realise just how all-encompassing the darkness is until you start grinning at the fact your dining companions tongue and teeth have turned black, and then realise they’re laughing at you for the same reason.
When the food is this good though, you don’t mind falling victim to the odd prank from the kitchen. I’d let the kitchen staff draw a comedy spunking-knob on my forehead while I was black-out drunk if it meant I could get another slurp of that ambrosial Consommé
The Man Behind The Curtain isn’t just food, it’s a mixed-media intertextual collage – each dish an essay where the references aren’t so much Harvard-referenced as hinted at with a cheeky wink in a way that all the best aggregators do. It just so happens to be absolutey delicious as well.
In terms of flavours it’s near-perfect – a couple of nit-picks aside (that XO sauce could have done with more of a kick against the rich and creamy Sweetbread, and the Roe Deer with Truffle Emulsion perhaps wasn’t as complex as the rest of the courses) – and there really isn’t another restaurant in the country that approaches food like this, not even close.
He may be the Hair Metal Chef, but nothing about O’Hare’s food is as one-note, brash or reliant on cliche as the genre. Think more along the lines of Godspeed’s “Lift Yr Skinny Fists”, Aphex Twin’s “Ambient Works” or Fuck Buttons’ “Tarot Sport” – unpredictable time-signatures and challenging moments keep you on your toes, with moments of swelling, soaring bliss held together with segues that bubble along sumptuously but with enough calm to give you a chance to appreciate what you’re being indulged in.
Somehow, miraculously, it all manages to be entirely unpretentious. I exited through the clothes shop several hours later, grinning from ear to ear and wishing there wasn’t an 8 month waiting list to book again.