Fine Dining Guide had the pleasure of visiting L’Enclume, the Michelin starred restaurant with rooms in the Lake District, and meeting its highly acclaimed chef patron, Simon Rogan. Having also achieved the coveted accolades of five AA rosettes, (2010), and Best Chef of the Year (Good Food Guide, 2009), his cooking is in the vanguard of cutting edge modern British cuisine.
The gastronomic journey of this pioneering chef has involved fundamental changes. His early limited experience in restaurants in Hampshire and Devon contrasts with the increasing work involved in his expanding culinary empire in Cartmel. Having swopped the bustle of town and city restaurants – with stints under Marco Pierre White and John Burton-Race – for being his own boss in a tranquil picturesque village, must have proved not only a culture shock, but a highly risky enterprise. Most importantly, Simon has retreated from classical techniques of cooking using widely sourced ingredients to a more experimental style, with produce dictated by seasonality, locality and sustainability. Indeed, L’Enclume was voted Sustainable Restaurant of the Year in 2010
Speaking with the clear vision and genuine passion of a true convert, Simon reflected on the past and enthused about the future. Encouraged by his previous sous chef Frederick Forster, (Roux Scholar in 2000), he found true inspiration in the experimental approach of Pierre Gagnaire and the use of wild herbs and flowers by Marc Veyrat. Both these elements play a large part in his culinary philosophy, along with an uncompromising adherence to top quality, organic supplies from the nearby Howbarrow farm.
It is hoped to adopt a totally bio-dynamic approach to farming by 2012, guaranteeing a continuing seasonal supply of food and obviating the need for a menu in the traditional sense.
Just as his shorter hair style reflects a certain personal moderation, so Simon admitted he has toned down his earlier – wacky – attempts at innovation, designed to make an impact on the gastronomic stage. Although foams, purees and jellies still abound in unusual combinations of tastes and textures, his primary focus now is on maximizing flavour from his raw materials, whether farmed or foraged.
Simon emphasized it did not mean he is less ambitious; rather his energies have been redirected. He enjoys using the latest kitchen technology in realising his inexhaustible fund of new ideas. These will be given further scope by his plan to employ a full time development chef (he already has a development kitchen), an enlarged main kitchen, along with a restructured restaurant. Moreover, Simon has a plan to elevate Rogan and Co, his nearby brasserie in Cartmel, into another fine dining restaurant.
Finally, and true to his philosophy, Simon is fully embracing his Cumbrian surroundings by using regional materials in the imminent change of the restaurant furniture and décor. In particular, Cumbrian oak tables, with surfaces to resemble smooth coastal pebbles, will take pride of place. The anvil from which L’Enclume takes its name, is likely to remain.
The exterior of the grey-stoned, slate roofed ex smithy, originating from the 13th Century, belies the modernized interior that is now home of L’Enclume restaurant and four of its twelve guest rooms. Low, oak beamed ceilings of the original building coexist with modern spotlighting, leather backed chairs and a bright conservatory extension. Bare topped tables in the fifty cover restaurant are well spaced, although these and the leather chairs are about to be replaced.
Two twelve-course menus, one wholly vegetarian, are offered alongside a shorter eight course option. What impresses the diner are not just the consistent precision of the cooking, clean tastes, textural complexity and artistic presentation – as if these were not enough – but also the enormous range of ingredients, many of which are unfamiliar of half forgotten. Each multi-component dish is a tour de force of invention and technical skill, delighting, and often playing with, the senses. Every ingredient is given the same attention to detail to maximize taste and texture; indeed, a hardened carnivore could easily be seduced by the emphasis on vegetables, herbs and hedgerow ingredients.
Of the three home made breads offered at the start of the meal, pumpernickel was outstanding in its gentle sweetness and soft texture.
An amuse bouche of chick pea cracker with garlic flower was suitably crisp, delicate and light. This went perfectly with the champagne aperitif.
Served in a ceramic sack, a layered combination of carrot puree and fried “cake” covered a base of succulent Cumbrian ham. With the instruction to taste all elements in one mouthful, this proved a tasty, well balanced construction.
Next came a highly imaginative, labour intensive offering of cod “yolk” which looked like an egg yolk but was actually composed of a warm mousse of salt-cod, dipped in fish jelly and coloured with tumeric. Amazingly the spice did not overwhelm the fish. A mayonnaise of garlic and egg cream imitated the egg white, whilst puffed wild rice spiked with vinegar powder was a playful salute to salt and vinegar crisps. Overall, this was a triumph of wit, taste and texture.
Chestnut dumplings and English mushrooms provided a range of earthy notes, the strongest being the black truffle shavings. A mild chestnut froth contrasted with its intense and consommé-like jelly which added a deep richness to the dish.
Compared with many of the other dishes, potted char seemed less adventurous but nonetheless perfectly executed: the rich buttery fish being balanced by pickled radish and a tuile of dill and rye toast. (Wines with the above: Riesling, Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley 2009, Australia)
Baked vintage pink fir potatoes were adorned with crisp potato skins and “ashes” of powdered roasted onion skin. Smoked goat’s cheese and sorrel added a fresh lift to this unusual but successful combination.
Earth and sea were showcased in a brilliant composition of roasted cauliflower and razor clam. The nutty caramelized floret matched the delicate sweetness of the utterly fresh razor clam. Seafood foam masked a surprise of seaweed and oyster which added a saline depth of flavour.
Grilled sea kale with golden beetroot, wild flower honey and salted hazelnuts had pleasing crisp, crunchy and soft textures with sweet and savoury notes. Its stunning presentation, like so many of the dishes on the menu, added interest and excitement to the dining experience.
Hake with chicken was another delightful gastronomic conceit. The crispy salted chicken skin worked well with the tranche of firm fleshed hake which it covered. Spring greens and artichoke puree added colour, flavour and texture, whilst a sauce of malted cider with a subtle sweet acidity, brought the dish together. (Wines with the above: Graves, Chateau Moulin, Bordeaux 2008, France)
The meat course of Gott’s Holker milk fed lamb featured cuts of shank, loin and sweetbread, all the elements being well flavoured and meltingly tender. Turnip rounds provided an ideal textural contrast. However, the addition of sheep milk curds would appeal to the more adventurous, but for others it might be an acquired taste. (Wine: Bourgone Pinot Noir, “Cuvee les Deux Pais”, A Gambal, Burgundy, 2006, France)
The optional cheese board offered one of the few concessions to foreign ingredients. All cheeses were in peak condition, and mont d’or, langres and comte were enjoyed with Cumbrian Prospect goats’ cheese. The accompanying chutneys and homemade crackers were excellent.
Desserts continued the themes of unusual combinations with sweet and savoury elements and contrasting textures
Cream crowdie was a salute to the Scottish dish, substituting rhubarb for berries and Douglas fir for a mint garnish.
Sea buckthorn puree, its astringency moderated in the cooking process, was matched with dainty muffins specked with blackberry powder. Cumbrian dark beer and liquorice provided a liquid base to this intriguing, beautifully presented dessert.
Best of all was an apple sorbet, the acidity of which was balanced perfectly by the sweetness of sliced beetroot. Thyme custard added herbal fragrance whilst the cobnut crisp gave textural contrast. This was one of many brilliantly conceived and precisely executed dishes. (Wines with desserts: Gaillac Doux Domaine, Rotier, 2007)
As if all the above was not enough, an unheralded course provided another culinary conundrum: a milk shake of pureed parsnip – again playing with the senses – was served with a miniature parkin. Good coffee and Kendal mint cake chocolate completed a highly memorable meal
Although restaurant manager Franck was absent, he had trained his staff well. Service was seamless and highly knowledgeable, not a mean feat given the number of multi-component dishes. When asked, waiting staff not only enlightened diners on the ingredients but also the cooking techniques. Wines were chosen to match each a group of dishes; again, a demanding task given the number of courses.
Finally, the patience of the waiting staff needs praise. Having arrived late, after major problems on a two hundred and fifty mile drive, I discovered I had lost my wallet somewhere in the dark streets of Cartmel. The calming, helpful manner with which Camilla and Rebecca dealt with this situation enabled me to enjoy the meal in a relaxed frame of mind.
In the end, the experience of eating L’Enclume was well worth the journey. As a destination restaurant, many are prepared to travel long distances and stay in one of its twelve rooms. The suite I stayed in, overlooking the village square was spacious, lavishly decorated in a French style, and extremely comfortable.
The full bookings of restaurant and rooms testify to the attraction of L’Enclume to genuine foodies. Their high expectations, like mine, are met and exceeded. Having embraced Cumbria to the full, it would be pleasing for Simon Rogan to see the locals reciprocate by patronizing L’Enclume more than they do. There can be few chefs – if any – who have the confidence and virtuosity to change their menus so regularly, being governed by the trinity of seasonality, sustainability and regionality.
With a brigade of just seven in the kitchen the wonders produced reflect meticulous planning, organization and execution. Simon Rogan and his team have created a restaurant of which they can be justifiably proud and which is going from strength to strength. The recognition it has achieved is fully deserved and it can only be a matter of time before Michelin awards it the second star it deserves.