Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Great British Menu

The Great British Menu this year was for a banquet celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Women's Institute.

I watched it solely to follow the progress of Michael O'Hare.

He now runs the quirky and glamorous Man Behind The Curtain on the top floor of Flannels in Leeds. But before he set up shop there, he was chef at a place called The Blind Swine in York. And we managed to get a table on my husband's 40th birthday, just before the restaurant's lease expired.

A blind swine?
We had no idea The Blind Swine was about to close. Although the fact that it was nearly empty that night did raise mild alarm, not to mention disparaging comments about the people of York not knowing a good thing when they saw it. So "managing" to get a table wasn't much of a mean feat in our case, although it was a wet Tuesday in December and would have been a different story on a weekend.

We nearly didn't go as our three-year-old, true to form, had been poorly all day. But it was my husband's 40th. And our lovely babysitter said she didn't mind if she had a disturbed evening. And if we hadn't taken the risk, we would - it turned out - never have got to go, as three weeks later, The Blind Swine ran its last service.

The Blind Swine was never your average fine-dining restaurant. It was very dark, in both lighting and walls, and played loud, grungy music. There were a lot of tattoos. It was primarily a bar, but not one I would have voluntarily stepped into off the street. It looked too scary. Too death metal. Too not me.

And yet.

And yet it served the most finessed, exquisite and delicate food I have ever eaten.

There was no menu. You just turned up and were brought food. You had no idea what was coming. And you weren't always sure what had come when it arrived. You just took the plunge and let your senses take over. Sheer extravagant exhilaration.

It's surprisingly hard to recall all the details of our meal now, given that it was so unforgettable at the time. I suspect that this has a lot to do with us ordering a cocktail flight to go with each course. And to do with us being 40 with a young child and no longer having a head for alcohol. (I don't think I ever had a head for alcohol.) It didn't help that we got only two hours' sleep after returning home before our daughter woke up coughing and then sat awake in our bed watching Pingu DVDs until dawn. The next day, nursing a sick child and the mother of all hangovers, was the longest of my life.

My diary reminds me that we had Lindisfarne oysters, foie gras with potato, bread, gazpacho with hake, pork cheek with chorizo risotto, saffron and pomegranate ice cream, passion fruit souffle, chocolate crispies and campari sweeties. But the one dish that has stayed with us is Whitby crab with Granny Smith apple. It was deceptively simple, but so incredibly fresh and pure. Palate cleansing. Mouth enriching. Life enhancing. It was presented to us by Michael O'Hare himself, as it was a new creation. He was peroxide blonde at the time, like a young Noddy Holder - a comparison he may not relish. I certainly wouldn't have said that to his face, since he looked mildly terrifying. And yet he was utterly charming and soft-spoken and gracious. You couldn't imagine that his big beefy arms had such a lightness of touch in the kitchen.

Crab and Granny Smith apple. Not how it was presented.

How come he was here? Why wasn't he in some triple Michelin starred restaurant? Was it that he couldn't fit in, with his taste in music and loathing of light? Had he been too restless to settle down? I was fascinated.

The waiter said O'Hare had done a stint at Noma in Copenhagen, and it showed. It was very special to get a taste of the best restaurant in the world on our home turf in York.

We haven't managed to go to the Man Behind The Curtain. Friends have, and apparently the food is still out of this world, but Michael O'Hare has upped the glamour, and upped the price. The Blind Swine was stupidly reasonable for the quality of food on offer.

How lucky we were that we got to taste his food while we could still afford it. I imagine, following O'Hare's success on The Great British Menu, that managing to get a table at the Man Behind The Curtain will now definitely be a mean feat. He is about to get massive. Go global. Be on telly a whole lot more. And it is a richly deserved success.

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