Some will know L’Enclume from a famous scene in ‘The Trip’. Some will know it as the older sister of chef Simon Rogan’s forays into London; Roganic.

But if you haven’t made it up to the southern fringe of the Lake District, this is all I can say. Go. Now now. Because you are missing out on something very, very special.

Simon Rogan’s cooking shines in the small village of Cartmel. It makes perfect sense. This is a bucolic town in a beautiful part of the world, with cobbled curling streets, a babbling brook and a church that dates back to 1100s. Flanking it are  green fields flocked with black faced sheep and further on, brown cows.

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Recently voted sustainable restaurant of the year, much of the produce that finds its way onto the menu at L’Enclume is gathered from their own farm just a mile from the village centre. Yet this is not simple produce, unfussed with on a plate. This is destination dining, showcasing cutting edge cooking. In my mind L’Enclume sits happily alongside meals we’ve consumed at Mugaritz, Faviken and Noma. So if a dash of artistry, friendly service and impressive food ethics floats your boat- read on.

Rather than walking you through and making you redigest the 17 courses consumed at L’Enclume, bite by bite, here’s a summation; a bit of a fan letter;

Dear L’Enclume, here are 10 things I really like about you.

1) Your unpretentious environment

The interior of the restaurant manages to be both modern and earthy, from the stone floors and walls, dark wood tables, squat chairs and table accents of sticks and stones. The rear extension looks straight out onto the garden, with sunlight streaming in. Here the water glasses are fashioned from recycled wine bottles and the dress code is simply smart. There’s no need for mucking about with jackets and ties (there were a few gentlemen in sports jackets, but a nice shirt and trousers seems to be just fine). This is a place that invites you to sit back and  be swept along on a gentle journey- the road map for which waits in an envelop on your table. It’s a listing of the 17 courses to follow, in efficient language; it’s more a listing of components in the dish than a breathless ode of what may follow.

2) Your dashes of whimsy

The meal starts, (like Mugaritz) with rocks. In this instance; pebbles. Here they’re not potatoes coated in clay, but delicate macaron like shells, sandwiching the world’s tiniest dice of apple. Nestled next to it are oyster leaves- something we first tasted at El Bulli, some four years ago now- these naturally occuring crisp green leaves tastes eerily like brine. It’s amouse bouches like this which truly live up to the moniker; they amuse- not both your mouth, but your mind. It’s great tasting food, with a sly sense of humour. This is the kind of stuff that tickles my fancy.

3) The way you use textures

There’s a riot of textures in the ‘snacks’ at the start of the meal- a tartare of mackerel sits in a cocoon shell of a seaweed cracker, garnished with filaments of radish and fronds of lady’s smock. It’s brittle and smooth, fresh and bright with a coolness that echoes the lily pond the bite resembles.

Then there’s the smoothness of a black pudding mousse, balancing against a novel leaf of crisp chicken skin, which shatters against your teeth.

And finally a revelation- cubes of smoked eel, washed in the meatiness of ham fat and a crackling crust. This one bite has all the novelty of your first bowl of rice crisps, with the hangover-drenching umami depth of a full English. In short, it’s pretty stunning.

4) Your beautiful flatware

There is such thought that’s wound its way into this restaurant; from the studied friendliness of the floor staff to the vessels the food is presented in. Spears of asparagus, a gentle green emulsion and delicate fronds of crab are layered in small ceramic ‘sacks’, allowing you to forage and dig with a novel small spoon all the way to the bottom. Other courses come on elegant slate boards, specially crafted bowls and at the very end- small cones are chocked into rock. No matter where you look you’re confronted with good design.

 5) There’s innovation- but not at the sacrifice of flavour

There are molecular techniques at play all over this menu- but beyond the novelty, they work to enhance the natural flavours of the dishes. Case in point; the cod ‘yolk’ with pea shoots, douglas fir and salt and vinegar. The dish looks like it’s been  plucked from the henhouse- but really, thanks to some smart kitchen trickery- it’s straight from the sea, with the centre of the luminous yellow yolk capturing a cod brandade style sauce. Underneath you find relief in the form of puffed rice that’s been assertively seasoned with salt and vinegar.

6) Your stellar wine service

A flight of matching wines at L’Enclume will set you back around £60 per person, yet it adds so much to the experience. Service is enthusiastic and deft, with pithy descriptions of each of the nine chosen pairings and- beyond the simple ‘this is the wine, here is where it’s from’- some thoughts on why it’s been selected and what it will bring out in each dish. When you’re dealing with more obscure chosen varietals such as Atanasius and a Spatburgunder from Germany- it’s helpful. Pourings are generous, but not glutinous. But beyond all of that, these canny choices add so much to each dish. The ruby tartare of venison, touched with charcoal oil, mustard and flooding lozenges of candied fennel positively sings when joined by the slightly smokey tannins of  the Austrian Gut Oggau Atananasius. It’s inspired stuff.

7) The inclusion of salad

My kingdom for a salad…. It’s a curse of multi course menus, they’re so often weighted by the heft of the traditional plating equation; protein+carbohydrate+slick of sauce. Half way through, you’re desperately searching for wafty greens for respite. So you can imagine the delight at discovering that the ox tongue listed on the menu arrives as small, beautifully seasoned nuggets playing hide and seek in a bouffant of hedge greens, herbs and Cherry Belle radishes. And the dressing? A light drizzle of beefy jus.

8) Your considerate portion sizes

The other thing that you come to appreciate when you’ve spent far too many months of mortgage payments (and hours of your life) sitting down to outrageous meals is consideration in portion sizes. Heaving yourself away from a table at 11.30 pm, only to spend the rest of the night shallow breathing and trying to sleep in a half sit up position after 17 generous plates is frankly Falstaffian. So thank you, L’Enclume, for being sensible about this. Most of  the fresh flavours that prance across the table can be consumed in three to four bites. And if there is a richer course; it’s presented in a restrained way. The double act of the raw prawn with wood sorrel and grilled prawn with onion is a perfect example. It starts with a pintxos style cracker, boasting a tartare of sweet raw prawn and the sweetness of an apple gelee that sits on the lid of a beautiful grey ceramic pot.

Beneath it is a rich onion custard, studded with sweet petals of red onion, garlic scrapes and langoustine. It’s rich- luxuriously so- but the sensible portion size what makes it Goldilocks-perfect

9) The way you turn a spotlight on unsung heroes

There are certain ingredients that get a bit of a short thrift in the kitchen. For instance; turnips. Nobody ever really waxes lyrical about this tuber. Yet with gentle care, Simon Rogan has turned it into a show stopper. In the base of the bowl is a nest of softly cooked spindles of this pale white starch. Joining in are some hen of the wood mushrooms and nasturtium flowers. Peeking out of a silken truffle infused turnip cream are tiny, Tokyo turnips. They’re bonsai in proportion- itty bitty baby turnips, plucked straight from the farm. If vegetables had souls, this might be grounds for infanticide. Beyond the adorable proportions, they are a textural treat- soft with crunch.

And then there’s the mutton- this shows up as the climax- yet the scarlet protein at the centre of the meal is not aged beef or spring lamb- but mutton. The older animal is treated tenderly- slow cooked sous vide and as soft as butter.

There’s fried kale for contrast, artichokes and the novelty of garlic flowers. It’s like the fields outside somehow morphed onto the plate.

10) The tempered sweetness in desserts, emphasis on fruits

Lastly, credit must be given to desserts. There are no cliches of chocolate fondants or hipster pleasing gimmicks of infusing bacon into panna cotta. There’s the curiosity of bitterness in a rye crust capturing a Coniston oatmeal stout ice cream- that’s contrasted with the sweetness of pear and elderberry vinegar.

Then there’s brown butter ice cream, studded with brioche crumble playing peek a boo inside,  with the acidity of rhubarb, sorrel and apple.

And lastly, the pinnacle of the meal for me; a sheep milk mousse, snap frozen by liquid nitrogen into craggy cubes. There’s ginger bread for spice, sweet cicely leaves for floral acid and underneath an orb of caramel, which creeps across the plate when punctured with a spoon.

It is impossible to leave L’Enclume without a smile on your face.  It’s like somehow in one restaurant it’s managed to capture some of the best of England- clever, dapper, restrained and sweet. It’s a restaurant that makes you feel good about yourself and the world you live in.

This is possibly the last, big restaurant we’ll do for a while.  We came to the Lake District to trace some family history and to celebrate ten years of eating well together. Now there’s a stowaway to shepherd into the world and school shoes to eventually pay for. But quite frankly, I couldn’t think of a nicer note to close it all with.

So thank you.

Kind Regards

Tori

L’Enclume
http://www.lenclume.co.uk/Cartmel, Lake District, UK