A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to a tasting lunch at L’Enclume.
I say ‘fortunate’ because not only does L’Enclume have a sterling reputation (2 Michelin stars, 5 AA Rosettes, four-times consecutive winner of Good Food Magazine‘s ‘Best Restaurant in the Country’) but also because somebody else had offered to pay for it, which is a solid result in anyone’s book.
We opted for the 8 course menu, being as we were a little pushed for time and, quite frankly, not wanting to take the proverbial out of our host’s deep-pocketed generosity. Besides, 8 courses is enough, especially when you have to work a kitchen shift straight afterwards. There is a 19 course option too, which does seem rather overkill, but perhaps I’m biased. I’ve never been a huge fan of tasting menus, I find them a little pretentious, a little… wanky. They seem to me a convoluted showboat of an experience – pretty glimpses of the promised land without ever fully arriving there. But hey-ho, each to their own. It is the way things seem to progress nowadays: get a star, switch to tasting menus. Even single rosette places are doing it now. As Vonnegut would say, so it goes.
So a tasting menu it would be, and this being a tasting menu at the best restaurant in the UK, I was suitably excited. The restaurant itself is lovely, and much less formal than I’d imagined. It’s housed on the site of an old smithy (L’Enclume means ‘the anvil’) in the sleepy village of Cartmel, about 10 minutes’ drive down winding Postman Pat lanes from the larger town of Grange-Over-Sands. I used to visit Cartmel in my teens, back in the nineties when business was good and my old man would treat us to celebratory dinners at nearby Aynsome Manor. I remember feeling quite intimidated by the oak-panelled dining room and formal service of the place, its starchy country house etiquette like something straight out of Downton Abbey. Its food, however, was delicious.
There was no such feeling at L’Enclume. Its vibe is more gamekeeper’s lodge than laird’s manor, with its low-beamed ceiling and flagstone floor it could just as easily be a Lakeland tearoom as a world-renowned restaurant. The staff were nicely grounded too, resplendent in their taupe grocer’s aprons (and a smattering of hipster beards) and not afraid to share a giggle with their guests. Friendly and refreshing.
Which leads me on to the wine. I must confess that I have no idea what we drank other than the fact that both bottles (one white, one red) were French and that the red was a Burgundy. I was too busy enjoying the apéritif – a beautifully light, crisp English sparkling wine – to pay too much attention to what was being chosen from the wine list. Which was extensive. With prices ranging from around £70 to more than the average household’s combined monthly income, the collection was certainly impressive. And the bottles we were served didn’t disappoint. The Burgundy was rich and smooth, full of ripe red fruit and liquorice (a pinot, I’m guessing?), and the white was even better; dry but with minimal acidity, and fresh as a North Sea gale.
But what you really wanna know is how the food went down…
Well, it was stunning. And rather disappointing.
My table was made up of six people, all of whom are chefs. Some were amazed, others were unsure, a couple were underwhelmed by the food we ate – but every single one of us had an opposing view on at least one of the dishes. Which is a good thing. Taste is entirely subjective. My own disappointment wasn’t so much with the food itself but with my expectations of it.
Allow me to explain…
The first two courses were not courses at all, they were canapés. But that’s beside the point; this was a tasting menu and that, unfortunately, is how tasting menus tend to go. Fine. I can live with that. What amazed me was the huge variation in quality between the two offerings. The first was a ‘truffle pudding’ – essentially a savoury bread and butter pudding with truffle, cut into a small cube the size of a piece of fudge. The second, ‘pork and eel with ham fat’, was a bhaji-like concoction of shredded smoked eel and pork which had been coated in tapioca starch before being fried; the ham fat element came as a purée upon which each bite-sized morsel was placed. The pork and eel was a revelation, feather-light and full of complex sweetness and salinity. The creamed ham fat – basically a condiment to the bhaji – then coated the palate with a savoury hit of pure umame, bringing all of the flavours together in the mouth. Everyone agreed that it was a great concept and a resounding success. The same conclusion was reached about the truffle pudding, but only by half of the table. Me? I just didn’t get it. Imagine roasting a piece of belly pork for just a little too long: the meat has begun to catch on the bottom of the roasting tin, which is now swimming in fat; now remove the pork, stick a piece of bread in the fat and leave the whole lot to go cold overnight; now eat the bread. That’s the only way I can think of to describe my experience with the truffle pudding. Even the truffle – and I love truffle – couldn’t redeem it. And yet, and this is what truly confounds me, three of my peers were positively raving about it. Now, maybe my palate isn’t as sophisticated as I’d like to believe, or perhaps the wine had tainted my judgement, but I rarely drink, I have never smoked, and I can decode the most complex of sauces within a couple of spoonfuls, yet I really didn’t enjoy this dish.
But, y’know, horses for courses.
Next came the star dish: ‘turnips with hen of the woods’.
This consisted of (what looked like) Tokyo turnips, a julienne of hen of the woods mushroom, and a truly sublime sauce, the depth of which I’ve yet to see matched. It was basically a potage, added to the rest of the dish at the table by the perfectly-attentive-without-being-intrusive service staff. Deep, rich savoury flavours with a slight cruciferous kick from the turnip. Truly wonderful.
That was swiftly followed by another triumph, the ‘braised leek and hen’s yolk, potato and Tunworth’. Like all of the day’s dishes it was really quite simple – no Heston-esque dry ice, deceits or explosions, just extremely good ingredients prepared to showcase their greatest strengths. The braised leek dish was just that: braised baby leeks, very lightly charred, served with a water-bathed hen’s yolk, potato, and creamy Tunworth sauce. Tunworth is an English Camembert-style cheese from somewhere down-south (Hampshire, I think?) that blows any Camembert I’ve tasted clean out of the water. This was a fresh yet powerful dish with bags of flavour, and the kind of sauce that had us all begging the waiter to bring us more bread.
Ah yes, the bread! I forgot to mention that. Well, it was good. Very good – the sourdough in particular was exceptional. It was clearly made using French flour (T55/65) as the crust was unlike anything you can achieve with UK bread flours, and contained what looked like a mixture of linseed, flax and possibly a little spelt. Curiously, they served it cold, the waiter informing us that Simon (Rogan) believes it tastes better at this temperature. In truth, we all secretly suspected they’d simply forgotten to warm it through. Alongside the sliced sourdough came individual white and granary loaves. Very simple, but perfectly executed. The butter, too, was kept simple: two homemade pats, both unsalted, one made with pasteurised cow’s milk, the other unpasteurised. I’m a big fan of unpasteurised cheeses for their pronounced flavour and floral notes, but I must confess that when it came to telling the difference between the two butters I was hard pressed.
And on with the next course: ‘Aged veal in coal oil, shallot and wood sorrel’. This was interesting in that the veal tartare and coal oil combined to produce a delicate smoked flavour, even though no smoke had been used in the preparation. The veal itself was wonderfully flavoursome, and perfectly complemented by both the coal oil and sharp, fiery shallots. As with all of Rogan’s food, it was extremely light whilst punching well above its weight in the flavour department. That said, it was just a tartare. I’d heard much hype about this dish, which has I believe also been served using venison, and in terms of clever technique it was indeed impressive. But I expected more. After all of the pre-fight talk the eventual bout didn’t really entertain as I’d hoped. This may be due to the shallot rings, which do bring a much needed counter to the oily veal/coal mixture, lingering on the palate. They were cut quite thick, meaning that they left a residual presence in my molars. Which was a shame.
The next dish felt like a proper course – or as close to a true course as can be expected from a tasting menu (let’s be honest, it’s essentially tapas, isn’t it?). It was the most substantial of the day; a good portion of perfectly cooked venison loin with a crisp croquette, beetroot, and salad. The croquettes, served four-to-a-plate, consisted of two croquettes made from the left leg of the deer and two from the right… “So be sure to have one of each to maintain a balanced diet.” A well rehearsed line from our waiter, no doubt, but a nice touch nonetheless. I couldn’t imagine that happening at any other two-star establishment. As I say, the loin was a beautiful piece of water bath cookery, perfectly pink throughout and flash-coloured just before serving. Beetroot – a tried and tested accompaniment to venison – did its sweet-yet-earthy trick, and a rich venison sauce pulled the whole thing together. The croquettes were nice, as was the ‘salad’; the former bringing a different texture to the dish, the latter – essentially a mixture of micro herbs and leaves – bringing a mustardy freshness, though it did feel something of an afterthought. Essentially the haute cuisine equivalent of a side salad.
Then things went a little downhill.
I must at this juncture explain that Rogan’s philosophy is one of seasonality and locality. Everything that ends up on the plate is as local and as seasonal as can be, meaning that foraging is high on the agenda. He likes to use products from his own doorstep; he raises his own livestock, he has an impressive kitchen garden, and he scours the landscape for new and unusual (and often ancient and forgotten) ingredients to play with back at L’Enclume. Which is great. But is has its disadvantages too.
We in the UK live in a temperate climate, meaning that our average temperatures are neither very cold nor very warm, and remain relatively stable throughout the year. It means that we have definite seasons, but that those seasons are short. That’s why other than pears, apples and the summer/autumn berries, we don’t enjoy an abundance of fruit. We can’t grow citrus. Damsons and quince grow far more readily than apricots and cherries. And other than honey, native sugars are hard to come by. But sweetness is there in the aforementioned berries, in native herbs and flowers, in hard fruits, nuts and seeds. So when it comes to producing a local, seasonal, native dessert the options are limited but do nonetheless exist. Which is why I can’t understand why anyone would use sea buckthorn in a dessert, other than for the simple sake of using it.
Sea buckthorn is tart; tart with a capital ohmygoodgodmymouthisabouttoimplode. It’s so tart that it’s effectively inedible until sweetened. It also doesn’t taste that great. Which is probably why, when the servers brought over our first dessert course of ‘Liquorice custard and sea buckthorn’ our waiter recommended that we plunge our spoons through the sea buckthorn mousse and on into the liquorice custard below it, eating neither by itself but always as a combined spoonful. Clearly, when you say that to a table full of curious people every single one of them will invariably do the exact opposite, so we did just that. Now I’m a liquorice fan, but what we were presented with was just a liquorice flavoured custard – nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing exciting. It was okay. The sea buckthorn, however, was truly vile. Together, they were edible but utterly forgettable.
To my mind this dish was nothing more than a chef saying, “look what I’ve done; I’ve taken two flavours that aren’t very nice and made them edible”. Which isn’t really what you want from a dessert.
The second dessert (and final course) of meadowsweet, quince and yoghurt was better but still decidedly sharp. Quince, as we know, needs to be cooked into submission but once there it provides a satisfyingly fresh plummy sweetness. The meadowsweet came in the form of a syrup, which makes sense as the plant isn’t usually seen until June through to August which was a good four moths off at this point. Its natural honey-tinged, slightly medicinal flavour worked well against the slow-cooked quince. And then came the acidity – tart yoghurt and a few micro herbs. It was the sort of thing I’d happily eat at breakfast with a cup of tea and some granola, but as a dessert – particularly following the sea buckthorn – it was just too much sharpness when all I was craving was a big old endorphin-packed hug of a dessert.
The optional coffee was very good, though it did take an eternity to arrive, and the petit fours of pine-scented chocolates hung from a spray-painted silver ‘tree’ centrepiece were also very enjoyable. And that was my overall feeling upon leaving – it was all very enjoyable, just not earth-shatteringly so.
Would I visit again? Yes, most definitely. I’d particularly like to visit during the warmer months (we visited in February) to see the effect on the menu as I’m sure that my experience would be much more enjoyable with the added benefit of sun-ripened ingredients. But as for my initial visit, I’d have to say that, even given that sublime hen of the woods dish, as a culinary experience it was rather overwhelmingly underwhelming.
L’Enclume Cavendish Street, Cartmel LA11 6PZ
015395 36362 / email@example.com