Back in January, we toured south central England eating at some of the UK's most famous restaurants and while there was good and bad, there was also something of a tasting menu formula: foie gras, hand dived Scottish sea scallop, venison for winter, lamb for spring. Indeed, the tasting menu recently sampled at Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester delivered exactly that and that's deemed 3 stars worthy.
Most restaurants then are about doing the same thing but trying to do it better than the next guy: better quality fresher ingredients prepared or cooked better but still the same old stuff. Put another way, everybody is in the same crowded space. At L'enclume however, Simon has thrown away this stalwart (or is that hackneyed?) playbook and instead delivers a menu all of his own. You abandon 'tried and tested' formulas at your own risk and such an approach would be foolish in the hands of a lesser skilled chef, but like we say, at L'enclume, there's a genius at work.
And let's get this out the way now, that L'enclume has only a single Michelin star is in our view an absurdity. For us, the food is easily two star and most probably three. It's a shocker too that it fails to make the San Pellegrino top 50: we've eaten in most of the top 10 and L'enclume is deserving as any there. So what's the issue? Who knows exactly, most likely that Cumbria is a long way from London and many are not prepared to make the journey; that's a shame. The result is that Simon Rogan might well be Britain's most undervalued and under-appreciated chef; that's a shame too. But we also believe that this will not remain the case for long: the food is too good and Simon's got too much talent. But more than that, despite having been open a good few years now, L'enclume is not static, rather, it's still evolving, and what it is evolving into is very much what many are talking about (but Simon is doing). More of that later.
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We made the 280 mile journey from London to Cartmel simply to eat Simon's food and so we wanted the full Rogan experience while there, though we ended up with more than we bargained for. In the village, Simon has L'enclume (a restaurant with rooms), and Rogan & Co, a pub-restaurant. Our original plan was to eat at Rogan & Co on the Monday night and L'enclume on the Tuesday. On the Monday itself however, the restaurant at Rogan & Co was unavailable so Simon asked us if we'd like to eat at L'enclume that night also. Planning the tasting menu for the Tuesday we said we'd go a la carte, Simon said that there was no a la carte available at L'enclume but he'd sort us out. Done.
Simon believes that plate repetition is unacceptable for guests staying at and eating at L'enclume for more than one night so despite having just eight hours or so notice, he said that he'd create a separate menu for us. Imagine our surprise then as we sat down for our pre-dinner drink, when we were presented with a 10 course tasting menu just for us. Later though, Simon would be quite apologetic about it being so hastily put together though I suspect that almost any other chef in the country would think they had delivered the meal of a lifetime if they were able to present that menu to their customers (and they'd be right).
While we had deep fried celery leaves as a pre dinner snack, the first real course was Dock Pudding. This is north of England fare with dock, bistort, nettles, bound with chopped hard boiled eggs, barley and porridge oats, fried and served with nettle mayo and fried kale. This is followed by Chick pea wafer, smoked bone marrow and (Morecambe) bay shrimp, dressed with 'American' corn salad cress. Great combination, great textures and of course great flavours. Third to our table are the exquisite Carrot sacks with ham and juniper, fried cake and cress. Presented in specifically made pots, a sublime carrot mousse with a juniper layer is topped with the fried cake and cress. This was stunning in every way.
Back to the menu, we're served Smoked yolk, ruby chard, asparagus and bronze fennel (with asparagus sauce). While seemingly every other restaurant has opted for a slow cooked whole egg that while brilliant can often see once cut the yolk drain to the bottom of the bowl and then wasted, the smoked yolk had a firmer almost gel like quality that allowed you to cut it with a knife portioning each mouthful with yellow, none wasted.
Howbarrow spring offerings is listed next though we're unsure what this means till we discover that Howbarrow is the name of Simon's owned farm where he grows produce for the menu, and the dish is a collection of seasonal greens taken from the farm that day. They're not just raw though, the carrots for example have been boiled at low temperature (by having a low pressure environment above the water) providing a softer more flavourful carrot. A lot of trouble has gone into plating too using a vertical carrot to support a purple leaf in front of which is a yellow flower, it didn't just fall on the plate this way and certainly not twice.
How unlike every other tasting menu in the UK's two and three star restaurants. Some food you're familiar with, some not, everything here seems fresh and exciting and there's feverish anticipation ahead of each plate arriving at the table. While so many restaurants seem to rely on on foie gras, lobster and other luxury ingredients to do the heavy lifting, Simon, lightly and brilliantly, adds talent to nature resulting in food as a revelation. We're already smitten with his food ahead of the main event.
That was our Monday night, the impromptu meal at L'enclume. For what happened Tuesday, read Part 2.
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