For sometime now I’ve been based in the South West which means trips to places like Cartmel in Cumbria & L’enclume were always going to be somewhat of a one off. Nevertheless the decision was taken to do a road trip rather than go away this half term.
L’Enclume has received more than its fair share of PR over the recent years and so it seemed to be an obvious choice for the 1st overnight stop en route to Edinburgh. The best way to secure a table usually at a restaurant with rooms, is to book an overnight stay in their accommodation. Duly booked and deposit taken we set off for the Lake District.
Arriving in Cartmel in the dark of an autumnal evening makes finding the bijou restaurant even more of a challenge than normal. With what was going to look like a rush to keep our table reservation, we appreciated that the front of house told us not too worry and to take our time, easily giving us an extra half hour.
After an exhilarating shower in the beautifully decorated room, we took the brief stroll into the main square and up towards the restaurant. We received a warm welcome as though our lateness was fully understood, having driven 6hours for effectively dinner.
We settled into the bar area, where we were offered a pre-dinner champagne (Billecart Salmon) and some nibbles. As you’d expect, these weren’t going to be any old nibbles but something of a prelude to a quality meal, or so I thought. The duck scratchings were good, crispy & moreish with a delicate seasoning, unfortunately the same couldn’t be said for the prawn cracker type thing. I’ve had to call it this because it’s flavour was so lacking & non-descript that it was almost there so they didn’t have to give us more duck. Little did I know this was going to be the shape of things to come.
After casually perusing the three tasting menus and no a la carte, we decided to plump for the 12 course menu with a minor detour for my dining partner due to dietary requirements (one would imagine that L’Enclume is afforded the same fate as the Fat Duck in Bray, where a very high percentage of its patrons choose these menus over a conventional a la carte).
Pre-Starter; Homemade black pudding fritter with broccoli purée.
The two little balls of deep fried black pudding arrived on a plate to share. As tasty as they were the idea of not a lot on a big plate seemed a little redundant, almost harking back to the much maligned days of nouvelle cuisine. Broccoli is a tough call to make a decent purée out of at the best of times, but the team at L’Enclume pulled it off magnificently. Just a few scattered broccoli micro shoots on top to keep the finish nice & clean.
Starter I: Beetroot and mozzarella, celery and dill.
Next to arrive was the first starter. It was a visually stunning dish arriving on an upturned roof tile in what looked like two paper pouches which were infact ceramic. The front of house staff explained that it was a multifaceted dish filled with textures, temperatures and flavours. Reading the menu at the start of the meal I got the feeling that this was going to be a wishy washy type affair. There didn’t appear to be any one dominant flavour & the typical pairing of goats cheese had been shunned for the less bold mozzarella. What could I say? It was a revelation, mozzarella snow, beetroot granite, chilled beetroot mousse, crisp baby shoots & beetroot meringue all combining beautifully & then at the very bottom an innocuous celery & dill jelly that was surplus to requirement.
Starter II: Cod ’yolks’ and garlic, crispy salt and vinegar.
When reading the menu this was the dish which gave me the feeling of trepidation. What the hell are cod yolks? Which part of the animal is it?
Although Simon Rogan isn’t particularly know for his nose to tail eating in Cartmel, I was starting to wonder. I do enjoy trying to pre-empt how a chef may present or cook a dish, the engaging chat around the table over a meal is something we Brits are often too reserved about. The stunning dish appeared as I suppose you’d expect, a yolk, casually garnished with some puffed rice & a dense garlic foam. The yolk was interesting, once you popped it, it oozed like a real yolk would, but then the aroma gave it away. It was similar to a cod brandade sauce scented with saffron, it was rich & balanced with all the component flavours in harmony yet instantly definable.
At this point in the proceedings a bread basket was presented to us & left on the table. This is a nice touch, rather than being pestered every time you’re remotely near finishing what you already have. At 3 rolls per person L’Enclume doesn’t skimp either. There was a potato based white, a spelt based brown & the now infamous pumpernickel rolls, again setting itself from the pack. Unfortunately the white potato based roll was ordinary, nothing really to suggest that the tuber had been anywhere near it let alone involved in any form of its production. The spelt roll was good, nice texture & flavour. But it was the pumpernickel roll that caught my attention. If you’ve ever had this course rye bread before then this will dispel any adverse feeling towards it, normally dense & chewy the L’Enclume roll bucked the trend. Flavoursome & aerated, truly setting a new standard for this much maligned style of bread.
Starter III: English truffle pudding in truffle broth, puffed barley & onions.
We were presented with bowls of the garnish including the truffle pudding & two nice sizable shavings of autumnal truffle, the aroma was hedonistic. The various forms of onions accompanying the chewy pudding were probably from Mr Rogan’s own farm, which he has recently expanded, these were good and an unexpected combination with truffles.
Yet even after the front of house poured the broth into the bowl the dish was good but not great, yes nice and balanced but lacked that x-factor – something that would make it stand out, a sparkle perhaps. Maybe by this point my expectations were different from the food in front of me.
Starter IV: Raw Scallop and oyster, sea herbs and apple.
As the stoneware plate was placed on the table, a feeling of being unease come over me. I’ve never really been a fan oysters, but hey lets face it, what’s the worse that can happen?
Underneath the little grey meringue cloches sat a pile of chopped tartar mix of sweet scallops and one assumes oysters. The cloches actually tasted pretty good, just like salt & vinegar crisps, a lovely counter to the sweet slightly rich seafood mix. The assorted foraged sea herbs were now adding that extra dimension that the previous dish lacked. By the time I’d finished my feelings of trepidation were but a distant memory, but this is what top end dining is all about. I’d been taken from my comfort zone, given something to eat that made me pensive & enjoyed it.
Starter V: Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone, tarragon, malt.
So at this stage of the proceedings I’m probably thinking
yeah 5-6 dishes in, I’m going to see some hot/warm food soon,
I mean how good can cold Jerusalem artichokes be?
Answer: not great. The dish itself was good, nice contrast of textures & flavours, but if L’Enclume tries to emulate the style of 3 Michelin star chef Alain Passard, where vegetables play the starring role in dishes rather than the garnish, then it’s going to have to try harder. There were lots of nice flavour combinations, red amaranth & tarragon, the malt soil with the artichokes and creamy ragstone, but eating cold Jerusalem artichokes isn’t great, and this is where this dish fell down.
Starter VI: Carrots and milk skin, fried bread and hazelnuts.
I remember at the start of the meal seeing this dish on the menu and thinking that it was somehow following the crowd. The technique of doing milkskin has been plagiarised by many but to see it here somehow felt right, maybe I was expecting an unpasteurised single herd milk. The heritage carrots, as they were announced to us, were four baby carrots of differing colours; white, orange, purple & yellow, which were shrouded in a thin veil of what looked like slow fried old egg white. The textures & flavours were interesting, although one of the four carrots really needed cooking more. Despite the carrots being either cooked in salted butter or brushed in it prior to plating, it was hard to tell if any of them tasted any different from each other. The fried bread was like no other fried bread I’d tasted before, instead it tasted like stale popcorn and although the sum of the total parts was greater than them as individuals, it still was an uninspiring dish.
Starter VII: Royal Kidney cooked in chicken fat, crab and horseradish.
Listening to other tables during a meal is an easy past time & I remember hearing one table thinking that this course was going to involve some kind of offal.
In fact a Royal Kidney is a potato not dissimilar to a Jersey Royal, ideally suited to boiling & steaming. But this is L’Enclume, where everything is up for grabs. The potatoes were split length ways and cooked in the chicken fat giving a lovely round the mouth feeling, yet not clawing as goose fat or beef dripping can be. They were then served on a plump mound of white crab meat bound with the brown meat & fresh horseradish. The crab element flavours were subtle, possibly too subtle. The horseradish needed to have more about it to pierce the amount of richness. This being said it was a a satisfying dish.
Main I: Roasted monkfish in our spices, parsnip and wild watercress.
On being presented to the table, the front of house explained what the spices were that had been used in the cooking process. For the life of me I can’t remember, but mint and star anise were definitely present. Unusual for monkfish, as most people would have gone for the more conventional curry powder, turmeric or even saffron. The component parts of this dish really started to sing, when on the surface they shouldn’t have. The spicy pepper of the watercress harmonised with the flavourings of the monkfish, the parsnips brought a rich creaminess and the fruity sharpness of the vinegar syrup cut through any lingering after tones that remained. It was beautifully balanced.
Main II:Shorthorn short ribs cooked for 72hours, smoked marrow and butternut.
If you were to read this dish anywhere else, you’d be forgiven for thinking about some Fred Flintstone-esque joint arriving at the table. An quite frankly that would have been the last thing I would have wanted to see, being 10 courses in on a tasting menu. But it was hard to establish which part of the short rib I actually got. Underneath the pretty squares of butternut squash, celery leaves, nasturtium, and shaved garlic, what part of the rib was there. It was the length, thickness & depth of my index & 2nd finger, in two separate pieces, they were beautifully tender and glistened with a sherry sauce (which would have been better served as a sherry vinegar sauce to cut the richness). This was then completed with a topping of melting nuggets of smoked marrowbone. With hindsight there was enough there, but it was just too rich to sit comfortably.
After a welcome pause in the proceedings, the cheese trolley arrived at our table. Being one never to pass up an excuse to try the various dairy products on offer I ploughed straight in. I chose a small selection from the twelve on offer, one of which was actually made by the owners of the cheese shop which supplies Mr Rogan. All the cheeses selected were in top condition & flavoursome.
Pre-dessert: Chestnut, honeyoats, anise hyssop, apple.
At this point I was becoming a touch jaded, I’d been bombarded with flavours for over three hours and relief came in the form of this pre-dessert. Light & refreshing with the apple being in two forms and the honeyoats present as a texture. The anise hyssop just added a palate cleansing punch to finish it off.
Dessert II: Coniston oatmeal stout ice cream, liquorice and sea buckthorn.
In a presentation of two component parts, this was a dish of simple execution. The ice cream had been moulded and then crumbed with something not dissimilar to pain d’epice and served straight on top of a sea buckthorn cream. The sharpness of the wild berry sliced through the richness that the ice cream may have had. The only disappointment was to find where the liquorice had gone, it wasn’t like there where many places to hide.
Dessert III: Sweet cheese with walnut, gooseberry, Douglas fir
On entering the final straight we entertained what we thought would be our final dish. I have to say as a marriage of textures & flavours it was a bold move by the kitchen team. Although there were a lot of opposing flavours they all combined magnificently, creaminess of the cheese with the tartness of the gooseberries. An outstanding way to finish the meal, or so we thought.
Dessert IV: Milkshake.
As a parting shot, just to finish me off came a ‘palette cleansing milkshake’. It did taste nice indeed, but why a palette cleanser at the end of the meal? It made no sense.
The Nuts & Bolts of it.
L’Enclume is a good restaurant, a great one it is not. On the drive to Cartmel I read the Jay Rayner review in the Observer, which had been published the day before. He arrives at some of the same conclusions I do;
Curiously, given their commitment to their own fields, the down points were those bigging-up single ingredients – one involving carrots, another Jerusalem artichokes. They needed to make you look at these familiar ingredients anew and they didn’t, not quite.
After a four hour meal of various highs & lows, I was sitting in some discomfort. While L’Enclume may shun the usual fripperies of top end dining, a comfortable chair shouldn’t be one of them.
For the past two years or so many have clamoured to recommend the Cartmel eatery is worthy of 2 Michelin stars, in my opinion it just isn’t. There is the element of the Emperor’s new clothes about some of the dishes and some of dishes are done because they can. Like an attention seeking teenager there are times & places for it, just not all the time. Its saving grace are its staff, friendly, measured, informed & approachable. They were there when we left at midnight and at breakfast the following day. Our room was also upgraded to the next level, which is a thoughtful touch again highlighting the attention detail.
For a total bill of £311.50 including overnight stay for two I would say it is something of a bargain considering the aspirations & aims of L’Enclume.
Would I go again? Probably not is the unfortunate answer, I’m glad I’ve been but once was enough. Would I recommend it? Yes, it is an experience, just go for the shorter 8 course tasting menu.