REMEMBER the Glam Rock poodle cut Michael O’Hare once sported? Coupled with a prodigious leftfield culinary imagination, it made him stand out from the crowd on Great British Menu. All those free-form swirls on the plate made some wonder: style over substance? But you had to admire the chutzpah.
The Rabbit In The Moon, his first new completed project with a more sensible barnet, also boldly goes… It shares its name with a US electronic psych band, both feeding off the Japanese legend where lunar markings suggest a bunny pounding on a pestle and mortar.
Billed as ‘space-age Asian food’ and spanning 17 no-choice courses, the dinner-only menu is in the hands of 22-year-old Luke Cockerill, sidekick from O’Hare’s Michelin-starred mothership in Leeds, The Man Behind The Curtain. The pair dreamed up this determinedly maverick riff on an alien (sic) food tradition together. So a palette of soy, ginger, chilli and random oriental flavourings to play with quite unfettered.
Neither chef, as far as I know, has travelled extensively in the Far East, learning at the feet of the great masters. Have they even made it down Deansgate to our own brilliant sushi haunt, Umezushi?
They start with a challenge – the site. The Urbis building, phoenix from the ashes of the 1996 IRA Bomb, has often been compared to a spacecraft. Certainly a succession of restaurants on the fifth floor have all got lost in space. Le Mont, The Modern, anyone?
So beaming up in the lift, the big question is – which moon walk are we heading for? 2017 – A Rabbit Odyssey or jamming with Sushi Quatro?
It's certainly a blast. The deafening soundtrack to the actual meal will lean over-heavily on Nineties hip-hop, rather like a dentist leans over you with a drill. Yet ultimately dinner in the Rabbit’s den will turn out more of a punk experience as we rattle though 17 small bites in under two hours. Explosions of flavour with an odd dud. Let’s call it Anarchy in the Umami.
Appropriately it all kicked off with Crispy Rabbit Ears – prawn crackers moulded to look like lengthy lapin lugholes, planted in ‘inedible dust’ (whatever that is) to thrust a two digit salute at the diner.
Subtly dusted with chilli and lime salt and somehow in harmony with the Kumamoto oyster dressed with pickled ginger that followed, it set the tempo of a sequence of one-bite dishes, some coming solo, some in pairs.
They were served slickly by a variety of folk in natty rabbit T-shirts. Their warmth was at odds with O'Hare and Co's in your face publicity-garnering ‘we don’t cater for veggies’, and ‘cocktail culture is sleazy', accompanied by social media spats. They also seem to have a thing against red wine – the list is overwhelmingly rooted in Riesling and other Teutonic aromatic whites. Oh, and they insist on you trying in-house aperitifs that are decidedly odd.
Still a couple of bottles of buttery, honeyed yet dry Trimbach Pinot Gris from Alsace at £39 a go did the trick against dishes that are hard to match wine with.
Even less engagingly they warn you beforehand that you only have your table for two hours, which seems a bit hard core if you are splashing out £75 a head with wine on top, and on a Thursday evening the place was hardly full anyway.
Despite some arty rabbit-themed touches, the ambience is penumbral, both at the bar – glassed in like a ticket office – and in the dining room, while you have that perennial Urbis frustration of not being able to see out of the mostly frosted windows, on the stairs the exception. It somehow feels chilly and transient. Alien even.
Dish by dish in order of appearance would be too much detail. So we'll pick and mix. I loved the inari, salmon skin draped over the rice rather than the customary puffed tofu. Bizarrely it tasted more bacony than the much-admired Chinese bacon butty, an under-spiced, chewy bao.
Throughout the food was beautifully presented, the most spectacular looking dish the lukewarm crispy noodle take on Thai red curry, which I just didn’t get. It felt like technique over taste. Its successor, though, combined both in spades.
Pain au Unagi (above) was a kind of oriental brioche encasing freshwater eel mousse with a couple of sardines tucked underneath. It looked and tasted otherworldy in a good way.
Though I loved the deftness of raw beef truffle nigiri (if not the blingy gold leaf sash on each piece), none of the duck dishes, including a misjudged kimchi-infused broth, rose to the occasion.
The fish courses were much, much better. I loved the intensity yet comfort of a bowl of razor clam udon noodles with swirls of cucumber, while a 'hot dog' of tender chai sui octopus (menu blip – surely they mean char siu?) had that barbecue and hoisin umami oomph. In contrast, the lumpen Toro Melt didn’t enhance that fatty bit of tuna one bit.
An ‘electric lime leaf’– yuzu cream sandwiched inside sherberty kaffir limes leaves – was a pleasantly weird palate cleanser ahead of an impressive procession of puddings, star of which was lotus root coated in salty dark chocolate.
Rivalling it was the playful finale, where Cockerill had carved mock plum stones from cocoa butter, pitted with sake cream, then served them up on a half of frozen fruit.
Wondrous strange. The bill then followed too swiftly, encouraging us to pogo off the premises as soon as was humanly or extra-terrestrially possible. There is so much to admire in the cooking, but this Rabbit has an underlying control freakery I can't warm to. It really ought to be more fun, yet just feels like it’s trying too hard.
The Rabbit In The Moon, Urbis Building, Cathedral Gardens, Manchester M4 3BG. 0161 804 8560.