Tuesday, 19 May 2009
L'enclume, Cartmel, Lake District
Recommendations for L’enclume aren’t hard to come by. Giles Coren waxes exuberantly and Hannah swoons at its merest mention. We’ve been dying to make the pilgrimage to this temple of gastronomy in Cumbria for a couple of years and have are now busy telling everyone how amazing it is ourselves.
An old blacksmiths in Cartmel, looking across a small river and up at the priory makes the ideal setting for L’enclume. The pale stone exterior yields gracefully to a contemporary interior that would be at home hosting a regional photography exhibition. It’s a design aesthetic that flows through to the food.
Simon Rogan is one of Britain’s most talented chefs. It seems crass to compare him to Heston Blumenthal. But it does cut to the chase quite fast. Both use the sorts of techniques you wlll find in Harold McGee’s books and Feran Adria’s kitchen. But, for me, Rogan’s cooking is more interesting.
Rogan’s individual genius is based on a three pronged attack. First, he takes the best ingredients from the surrounding area. His larder is the North West, which offers up the abundant fruits of the Lake District and the Atlantic all in one go. This gives his food an integrity and flavour that aren’t unlinked. The second prong is that he tells stories. His meals are narratives with each course pulling on a different emotional chord. One tale leads to another. And the third, and sharpest, prong on his trident is his intelligence. His food is imaginative and fun without being off-putting. It’s not up its own ass. Rather you feel the meal is like a dialogue that ebbs and flows. That has a rythmn and a gentle Cumbrian lilt that sweeps you along.
On arrival we were presented with 3 menus ranging from 9 courses to 17. We decided to pig out on the food and be thrify with the wine and opted for the full shebang. Rather than try to recapture each dish, I am going to give you the Match of the Day approach.
Cones of piquilla peppers were like dinky ice cream cones stuffed with smooth pepper ice cream. The cone was delicate, light and also charmingly flavoured. The presentation of the cones on a miniature rack only added to our glee. So often dishes promise the world with their looks, but fall apart once they are in your mouth. Not so here.
Sausage sundae is a dish that really got to me. Anyone who can combine two of my favourite foods (ice cream and chorizo) is onto a winner. And then the addition of a beetroot foam just adds an extra layer of narrative. As if Rogan is setting his diners up for an adventure. His opening salvos say, “don’t worry ladies and gentlemen. Whilst I’m going to do some weird stuff with your food, I’m going to use ingredients that you all know and love. Enjoy it.”
Cod ‘yolk’ crispies take this cue and raise the notch a bit further. The lingering Spanish accent of the chorizo sausage in the previous dish is evolved and developed by the use of brandade in this dish. The cod yolk is in fact a perfect yellow bubble of salt cod. This brilliant dish is a genial doff of the hat to Adria’s 55’ yolk over in Rosas.
Egg drop and sour soup was huge fun. It took the deliberate lack of egg from the previous dish and wove it into our soup in the same way a home cook would make a meringue from the whites and some hollandaise from the yolks. It was a striking example of how the courses are linked and how richly Rogan layers his stories. There was a danger that this could just turn out to be a slightly embarrassing homage to Feran Adria but to his credit, Rogan is more subtle. Having name checked his inspiration, he then establishes his own style. The sour soup cleansed and cut through the richness of the cod and the sausage and set us up for the main courses.
Surf and turf was brilliantly unusual. It arrived looking like three breaded scampi artistically arrange on a long plate that undulated like a sand dune. In fact they were made from pork belly and smoked eel. The outside was crisp whilst the inside was gungy and deep with savoury oomph. The flavour of pork belly yielded and gave way to the acquired taste of smoked eel. Luckily it’s a flavour we both like.
Langoustine, hydrated, marinated took inspiration from Japan. The sweet, succulent langoustine had been poached in a broth made from its shell and then had been wrapped in seaweed and dropped into a light stock. It tasted of the essence of langoustine and had us in raptures.
Glazed lamb, broccoli stems and nasturtiums was another masterpiece. The lamb was deliberately greasy and totally tasted of that addictive flavour that all men who enjoy a few pints on a Friday night are all too familiar with: kebab. The obstinate use of broccoli stems and of nasturtium rather than nasturtium flowers was trying to communicate something about the way we are all guilty of dismissing the best bits.
Chick’o’hake saw Rogan giving McDonald’s and KFC a moonie. He not only managed to fuse a perfectly crispy piece of chicken skin onto a pristinely cooked fillet of hake, but he also managed to call into question the way people remove chicken skin and turn their nose up at hake. It was a dish that followed the same storyline as the glazed lamb in that it made us re-appraise fast food such as the fillet o’fish and the chicken burger. Rogan’s ability to include people in his stories, rather than turn them away marks him out as a star.
Expearamenthol frappe was the perfect transition from main courses into sweets. A plate of eucalyptus ice cream blasted our mouth like someone squirting Vics “First Defence” in our mouths. But after so many layers of flavour, it was much needed. It would have been very easy for this to have been a great idea on paper that tasted disgusting. But yet again it was a dish that delivered on a functional and intellectual level.
Stiffy tacky pudding is one of Rogan’s signature dishes. It is a deconstruction of the classic pudding that Cartmel is famous for. You are presented with 5 spheres on a “plate” that resembles an executive toy and are told to enjoy. Each ball represents a different flavour: sweet cream, toffee, dates, fudge and vanilla. You pop them all in your mouth, one after the other and giggle with appreciation. It should go down as one of the country’s iconic dishes.
Black passion brought our meal to a close with a burst of fireworks. A ball of passion fruit sorbet and ice cream played off the rounded note from the stiffy taffy pudding. It captured the essence of passion fruit and accentuated it by pairing it with a black liquorices and poppy seed tuille. The use of liquorices reminded me of Blumenthal’s famous salmon dish, not only for the flavour, bit also for the striking colours. The use of “black” in the naming of this dish surely is not haphazard. Combine the word black with the way you have to shatter the tuille with an abrupt tap of the spoon is a subtle reference back to the origins of L’enclume, which in a previous life was a blacksmiths.
Not every dish worked. Some like “Hot pot” (a molecular take on the Lancashire hot pot) and “Surrealists Nitro Slammer” (a dessertified version of tequila, lemon and salt) failed dramatically. But as my music teacher once told me, “if you’re going to make a mistake, make it a big one” and as my rugby coach said, “if you aren’t making a few mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.” So we’ll turn a blind eye. In addition we weren’t impressed with the dodgy bed in our room or the extortionate cost of breakfast. But we’ll let them off because the negatives were so hard to find amongst the abundance of positives.
L’enclume isn’t perfect. It occasionally errs. But it surely must be up there in the pantheon of world class restaurants. Rogan’s intelligence, storytelling and sheer cookery skills place L’enclume at the anvil of the gastronomic gods.