We visited L’Enclume as a family to celebrate my 50th birthday. I’d always wanted to go with my two daughters to a really top restaurant. They are interested in food and enjoy cooking themselves. The package I booked involved us staying in the L’Enclume B&B and having one meal at the very good Rogan & Co and one at L’Enclume itself. I chose to eat at Rogan & Co first. L’Enclume is a very different experience from other Michelin starred restaurants. The emphasis is very much on the food and the experience and as a result the decor and the dress code are more relaxed.
Cartmel is an old, pretty, small, mediaeval village in rural Cumbria. It is within easy touching distance of Grange-over-Sands and Morecambe. It is worth a fleeting visit for the old priory, the racecourse or the scenery. The L’Enclume restaurant is on a small side street that ends on the square through an old gatehouse. There is no parking on the street or at the restaurant so you need to drop people who can’t walk a the door.
The welcome in the restaurant was very warm – almost like arriving at a hotel rather than a restaurant. I like this. I have been to some restaurant where I either feel I am being judged or that I’ve stumbled into a wake. I like to feel part of the show and valued. We were taken straight to the table at 7 and we didn’t finish eating until around 11:15 but more about the way the evening panned out later. The restaurant decor is worthy of comment. If I am honest it wasn’t what I was expecting but in hindsight it is exactly what I should have expected. I expected a luxurious feel but that wouldn’t really reflect the ethos or its surroundings. The decor emphasises the natural environment in colour scheme and materials. It is quite open plan and light – more cafe than restaurant. We were in an area overlooking the small garden. Of course we went for the legendary 16/17 course taster menu with accompanying wine flight.
On arrival at the table we were each presented with an envelope. This contained the menu for the evening and there was a lot to read.
The meal began with a series of amuse bouche served at a brisk pace. It began with Oyster pebbles – one of the more quirky dishes – an oyster flavoured macaroon served with a fleshy chilled oyster leaf which tasted of the liquor you get in an oyster shell. Another favourite was the chicken dumpling which just tasted of all the best bits of a roast chicken. I mention the pace because this is clearly thought through. Serving this many courses places an organisational strain on the kitchen and the serving staff. We reached the end of this phase with a crab and prawn dish served with a pea purée in a tiny ceramic ‘bag’. At this point my wife felt ill and went to the bathroom (nothing to do with the food – she’d not been feeling 100% earlier. The staff were fantastic and discreet. In the end she decided it would be better for her to go back to the hotel room. I walked her back but it was a good thirty minutes before we were ready to resume.
As soon as I was back the waiter checked we were set to continue, reset the table for just three places and we carried on. The Wine Flight was an interesting dimension. The sommelier was very good at explaining the choices and why he felt they would go well with each dish. Quantities varied according to whether it was for one or two courses but it was always “enough”. One feature which shone out was the knowledge and passion of the restaurant team. They clearly felt very proud of where they worked and we’re happy to explain the food and the ethos to anyone who asked without being preachy or patronising. This is no mean feat given the huge variety of ingredients in each dish. I was fascinated by the whole foraging idea and the alchemy which moves a gimmick into a menu. The foraging provides the kitchen staff with a vast palette of flavours and they then use their skills to extract intensity and texture to suit each dish. There is clearly a hefty chunk of ancient country lore involved in identifying the right plants in the first place but blending this with modern techniques is genius and is always going to produce flavours we are unaccustomed to. Simon Rogan’s ability is to avoid the temptation to shock and use ‘showbiz’ but rather to just focus on the food and let it speak for itself. It isn’t about how clever foraging is, it’s about therefore being able to taste delicious and subtle unprocessed flavours and textures you will not find anywhere else. The basic cooking principles apply but with a lot of substitutions – the L’Enclume kitchen staff are in some ways constrained by the principles they follow but in other ways they have so many additional ways to add, for example, sweetness to a dish.
Of the main courses the highlight of the whole meal was a langoustine dish which started with a cold raw langoustine crisp on top of a pot and then the glazed langoustines in the pot itself. It was so well-balanced, so well presented and so unctuous it just made us smile. I think this is one of Simon Rogan’s signature dishes as I saw it being featured later on the TV programme about the restaurant he was setting up in Manchester. Virtually everything else on the menu will be tweaked based on the produce harvested on the day and by season. The lamb and brill dishes were very good too.
It is a fairly blurred division between courses. The taster menu has so many courses that there are ‘accelerations’ rather than courses. At times one plate goes and is immediately replaced with another. The rhubarb crisps with poached rhubarb dessert was fantastic but so was the pear dessert served under a whimsical concealing crisp blanket.
As we were pushing the boat out we had the cheeseboard. This was some more theatre delivered with incredible knowledge and great skill. A lovely touch was that the waiter took the preprinted menu away and printed the cheese choices we made on the back as a souvenir. I like the recognition that for almost everyone there this will be a very special occasion and there is no need to be embarrassed or showy about it.
The meal ended with little cones of sweet cheese in a variety of flavoured edible papers and a fermented iced tea. The iced tea was a self-proclaimed experimental project – not to my taste but nice to be included.
I mentioned that my wife was taken ill part way through the meal (thankfully just a fleeting bug).This caused considerable disruption to the restaurant but the way they handled this on the evening and subsequently on the bill was exemplary (especially considering this was based on a prepaid package).
My family thoroughly enjoyed the break. The B&B andRogan & Co continue the style and ethos as well as the quality. This must be the most important thing about any restaurant no matter how accomplished it is – it should be about fun and enjoyment not a cold shrine. Most importantly I learned a lot from the visit and had some inspiration too. I really admire the approach which combines heritage with modern technique and cracking ingredients. My daughters bought me a copy of Richard Mabey’s Food For Free which was promoted there so hopefully I will be putting some of it into practice. Amazing and inspirational!