Review – The Man Behind The Curtain

Man Behind The Curtain Leeds Review

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.

Man behind The Curtain Leeds

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Review: Bar Soba, Leeds

Bar Soba Leeds Review

Bar Soba Leeds opened around a year ago – the final lick of paint which completed the transformation of the Grand Arcade & Merrion Street from a dingy-yet-charming hovel into Call Lane 2.0.  Primarily a cocktail bar which proudly boasts a menu of pan-Asian “street food”, Soba occupies the location in The Grand Arcade that previously homed nightclubs like Heaven & Hell, which famously had a “£7 all you can drink” offer.  Midway through the first course it became apparent that Bar Soba was adhering to this tradition – I could barely stand to eat more than £7 worth of this unimaginative, unaccomplished cooking.

Ordering Thai Fishcakes as a starter is a reliable indicator of the quality you can expect for the rest of the meal, and the ones here were just that.  Claggy and mysteriously sweetened – an homage to those donuts you eat by the paper-bagful along the seafront – were mistaken for Sweetcorn Fritters initially, with the Sweetcorn & Coconut Fritters themselves mistaken for globs of deep-fried Play-Doh, all mushed and oily from the fryer, with none of the ingredients distinguishable in what was served. 

I don’t know what was inside the Steamed Beef Wartip Dumplings as they lost the battle for taste against a soy-heavy, shop-bought dressing, and those crispy onions you buy in tubs from Ikea, but considering the dumpling skin shared the texture and appearance of soft-boiled condoms, I’d rather not find out.  Lime and Coriander Prawn Katsu is the only starter which isn’t an unmitigated disaster – only because I’ve grown accustomed to frozen, breaded prawns from family Christmas buffets catered by Iceland.  The ones served here are of a similar standard, and bewilderingly served with the same assorted dips you get with poppadoms from an Indian Takeaway.

The Real Junk Food project recently took up residence in Santiagos just opposite Bar Soba, taking donations of unsellable and waste produce from supermarkets and restaurants, saving it from the landfill and selling meals on a Pay-As-You-Feel model.  It’s an admirable scheme and one which is gaining traction across the UK and Europe.

Judging by the contents of Bar Soba’s Chilli Pork Ramen, they’ve taken inspiration from TRJFP and started bulking it out with leftovers from last week’s Toby Carvery steamtrays – I’m not expecting Koya or Shoryu-level authenticity from a bar-turned-restaurant which offers more than 40 broad interpretations of Asian dishes, but if you’re going to put Carrots, Broccoli and String Beans in a ramen dish, at the very least cook them properly.  These particular ones disintegrated like a damp sandcastle at the faintest touch; patients recovering from invasive root-canal surgery would probably describe these vegetables as “somewhat lacking in bite”. Some of that cooking time could have been devoted to the freeze-dried noodles, which were cooked just enough to start breaking down the surface starch into a gluey paste, but not quite enough to prevent the middle from being solid.

To offer some balance, they know what they’re doing when it comes to meat – the roast pork is succulent with good ribbon of just-cooked, tender fat, the spices are balanced and there’s a satisfying char on the outside (the broth however was nothing of the sort – muddy, weak and one-note without even a hint of the dashi that usually adds complexity to good ramen, and elevates it above something you can make at home with a Stock Pot and kettle).

If this version of Singapore Street Noodles became well known it might cause irreparable damage to the country’s culinary reputation and tourist industry – lukewarm and lacking in the depth and brightness of flavour usually associated with the dish, it arrives tasting of nothing but cheap crisps.  We request it without meat, so there’s a scattering of miniature, gnarled prawns punctuating the dish, as if somebody accidentally spilt the contents of a pair of nailclippers over it.

Soba is a big venue with a lot of flashy distractions; upstairs occupies the grandest part of the Grand Arcade, featuring a beautiful glass roof, DJ booths and a 20ft projected animated mural.  All of this doesn’t come cheap, and to pay the bills they have to get a lot of people through the door every month, and to do this they have to position themselves as a destination that big groups can compromise on – it’s certainly the only venue I’ve ever seen to offer pints of Carling alongside whole bottles of Patrón on the drinks menu.

In trying to kind-of please everybody, all they’ve succeeded in doing is providing the worst possible version of everything that’d on offer. There was nothing here which captured either the finesse or the gutsiness of proper Asian street food – in terms of authenticity, this is about as genuine as White-girl bindis at music festivals.

The bill – including 2 drinks and service – came just short of £60, and there really is no reason to be spending that kind of money on a standard of food which can be bettered by that of Wok On.

For other Pan-Asian recommendations, check out our Leeds Restaurant Cheat Sheet

Minor Treat: The Swine That Dines, Leeds

Ox Tongue, Beans, Corn Tortilla

This could be the easiest post I’ve ever written, just because I’ve had so much practice describing – even justifying – the concept to people as soon as I mention it’s a posh-eating experience at what most people recognise as a butty shop – since opening around five years ago, their bread and butter has literally been bread and butter.

You might be aware of The Greedy Pig for their pancakes or Full English and Vegetarian breakfasts (they say pizza is the great equaliser, but that’s got nothing on the unifying properties of fried breakfast foods, consciously-sourced and artfully composed, ready for Instagram) and rightly so, it’s my favourite and possibly the best brunch spot in the city – but over the past year they’ve been doubling down on their efforts to be seen as a credible evening dining option.  

The Swine That Dines started life as a nose-to-tail tapas stall at some of last year’s Street Food events – managing to make overlooked cuts like tongue and heart so appealing that they regularly sold out – and then started hosting themed supper-clubs in The Greedy Pig, with menus focusing on nose-to-tail (or root-to-shoot, in the case of their vegetarian events) cooking, always encouraging responsible, resourceful eating rather than extreme-eating machismo.

Recently they took the merciful decision to host weekly small plates events at The Greedy Pig, offering 6 to 8 new dishes every week which showcase not only the best of seasonal produce, but also Chef Stu’s creativity and passion that he honed working in fine-dining under big-name chefs that I won’t name-drop.  When you consider this background and talent, and the fact he’s spent years toiling away in a modest kitchen cooking modest food, The Swine That Dines menus begin to look like his way of hulking out – this week sees the sixth event, and in that time they’ve offered almost Fifty different dishes.   Read more

Minor Treat: The Riverside Cafe, Leeds

Riverside Cafe

At the risk of breaking the fourth wall for a second, I’d like to mention a new type of feature on the blog – Minor Treat.  A Minor Treat is a short overview of somewhere I’ve tried first-hand and want to mention beyond the few sentences I’m limited to on the Cheat Sheet, but I haven’t visited enough to justify or be able to write about in a thousand-word review explaining their ethos, or where they source their napkin-holders from.

First on the list is newly-discovered brunch and lunch spot, The Riverside Cafe.

Occupying the riverside-half of the ground floor of No. 1 Whitehall (you won’t know the name, but you might recognise the building, if you have a keen eye for nondescript chambers of commerce), The Riverside’s plot is like a Costa franchisees wet dream – the 8-ish storeys of offices and conference rooms overhead guarantee decent footfall from suits on business lunches and office bods who are too busy to make a packed lunch; you could get away with a Nespresso machine and some posh-sounding sandwiches freshly bagged up each morning.

The fact I’m writing about them hopefully indicates that they haven’t just settled for that approach, though.   Read more

Review: BAO Soho

Bao Review Restaurant Front

Bao’s origin story is well-trodden by now, so I’ll keep my recap brief: it’s the success story of a street-food upstart who gained well notoriety, awards, and a dedicated following – all very deserved – by doing what only the best street-food upstarts were able to do – introducing something genuinely new to their audience: Bao.  To the uninitiated that’s slow cooked meats with assorted pickles and toppings, all folded inside the type of steamed bun that sends food writers clambering to find a new synonym for “pillowy”.

Flash-forward a few years and they’ve gone all bricks-and-mortar on us.  Praise for the 30-seater restaurant in Soho has been rolling in exponentially and the queue outside reflects that – at busy times dozens of would-be diners snake down Lexington Street, waiting patiently adjecent the restaurant’s glass front.  It’s become a bit of an in-joke in itself, so I was more than happy to pay my dues and get the full experience, besides I’ve stood in bigger queues for less promising pay-offs in the past – this would be a breeze compared to 12 hours to get into Reading Festival 2005. Read more

Review: Shears Yard

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I’ll begrudgingly admit that I might not be completely without fault when it comes to writing about restaurants – Hang about, before you destroy my self-esteem by shouting out guesses I’ll just come out and say it: most of the places I get chance to review are pretty casual affairs.  As much as I’d love to write about a different fine dining epiphany each week, my budget dictates that restaurants be separated into two categories.

Mostly I’ll visit “Buckaroo restaurants” where even the slightest mention is enough to persuade me to drop everything and visit spontaneously.  If you so much as say a word which rhymes with “MyThai” around me when I’m a bit peckish, I’ll have an Uber en route before you finish the last syllable.  And then there are the Main Eventers – destination restaurants that I’ll book a week in advance, study the menu for as if it contains a hidden cypher, and daydream about while eating my lugubrious packed lunch.  The kind you can justify going to in the event of a special occasion.  Shears Yard was placed firmly at the top of my Main Eventers list for a while, and when they announced a new Fixed Price menu I felt it was a suitably special occasion for me to find a clean shirt for. Read more