11 March 2009

Lake's Superior (Part II)

















Sorry all, I have rather kept you waiting, haven't I? However, I'm now officially on the "chill out" bit of the tour and, with a belly full of nice chocolate cake - indeed, one that looked so appealing it didn't last long enough to be photographed - I've got a little time to catch up on some blogging.

And so to L'Enclume. I've been trying to get to Simon Rogan's wittily creative Lake District ourpost for about four years and I think Mrs L was concerned that so much anticipation would lead to disappointment. Her concerns were: a) touching; but b) misplaced. It was everything I'd hoped it would be and considerably more.

Cartmel is a charming little village and, when you're trying to park a huge BMW and not scratch it before the nice men from their press department collect it next Monday, you realise just how little. There's barely a gate you can get through first time. I only point this out to illustrate the fact that this quaint town - previously best known for its race course and being the home of the Sticky Toffee Pudding - is an unlikely setting for Rogan's Michelin-starred cooking. Put it down to English eccentricity, perhaps. but it certainly works and the guest room element - L'Enclume has nine bedrooms available throught the village - is an added bonus. Our room, opposite two of Cartmel's three pubs (which, for the record, is a fine number for any tiny village), was a mix of Lake District charm and New York loft apartment. A lovely shower, a HUGE bath, the biggest TV I've seen this side of Selfridge's... but a little pot of home-made biscuits as well. And so, washed, watered and with a couple of biccies to keep us going (after Saturday's mistake, we skipped lunch), we wandered down the road to the restaurant.

As we supped bubbly and picked at some chilli and maple syrup popcorn (something I intend to copy and pass off my own one day very soon), we perused the menu. This wasn't for any great decision on our part, but just interest. Rogan has created three tasting menus so the choice is whether you have eight courses, 12 or 17 (if my maths and notes are correct).

First up, were a selection of amuses: a mushroom mousse-cum-pate, the sweet and sour plate of avocado and quince (pictured above), and the punsome Cod Lips Ses Amis: fried cod lips with a lovely mayo-style accompaniment, flavoured with sesame. The lips, like the cheeks, provide concentrated fish flavours without overpowering. It's not a pretty dish but they make an intense and fleeting appetite stimulant. And I love anyone that can do a decent pun so Simon was already scoring highly for Menu II & III's "stiffy tacky pudding" before this arrived. I think it's fair to say that Rogan joshes to a very high standard...

Tamarillo - a pomegranate/mango cross, apparently - provided the bitter sweet, plummy basis for a cleansing first course. Served as a martini, together with a coconut wafer, and topped with a spash of cream soda from a very bling syphon, it was a lovely, creative way to kick off, a playful moment of waiting staff / customer interaction.

Bread was next (house made and served with a lovely nutty pumpkin foam rather than butter) which heralded the arrival of Egg Drop Hot & Sour Soup. This was a vibrant broth of local shrimp and Asian flavours served alongside... a syringe? Oh yes. The syringe contains part-cooked duck egg which is then "injected" into the broth, forming a long, thin, delicious egg noodle that cooks in the heat of the liquid. Again, there was a slight air of pomp to it all but it's all done in such a knowing, funny way, it seems more involving than The Fat Duck experience.

Mrs L & me - plus a friend, his fiancee and his mum - went to The Fat Duck a few years ago. I loved it, friend loved it, Mrs L... was underwhelmed, particularly by the cost:enjoyment ratio. Her feeling was that it's clever but too eccentric, with moments of foodie madness for the sake of it. She's probably right but Heston is a genius, just one whose food you'd never attempt at home.. Simon, though, seems to share a similar exploratory ideal but it's all just... well, friendlier and more inspirational.

Right, domestic history over, back to the food. The soup was great - though a little more spice would have been good - while the next course, Malted Lamb Glaze & Cardamom, was as good as anything I've eaten in the last three years. Served alongside a white chocolate risotto, with malt foam and a cardamom glaze this was a mad combination but one with no wasted ingredients on the place. That, you see, is the difference between a genius like Simon Rogan and a wannabe like the chap at Cotswolds House.

Incredibly, the dishes then got better and better. "Crab in Ham with Hazelnut" was actually sweet crab meat, hazelnut puree, bright wheatgrass for decoration and flavour... and Iberico ham. That combination of acorn-influenced pig and the hazelnut was delicious, while the fattiness of the ham was matched by the richness of the crab. If I close my eyes, I can taste it now.However, if I do that, I drool all over my laptop...

And then came, for me, the stand-out of the meal, and the dish that confirmed L'Enclume's place in my Top Three Meals of All Time. Billed as Fried Halibut With Garlic & Juniper, this was a perfectly cooked rectangle of fat, firm fish sitting on top of sweet garlic puree, the almost floral hint of Juniper, little crunchy Japanese artichokes and wild mushrooms. Individually, each element was delicious. Together it was a combination of textures and flavours that made my eyes roll back in my head.

After that, the excellent Breast of Veal (with sweetbreads, star anise, citrus and sea fennel) was always going to pale a little. If it hadn't been for the Halibut though, the veal might have been the best thing I've eaten for years...

Then came pudding. With a slight detour for cheese. he excellent cheese trolley received a murmur of appreciation as it came through the doors and that was the point you realise just how special L'Enclume is. Because every table is eating roughly the same dishes - the only difference being portion control and number of additional courses - it's a shared experience, like all the best food-related activities. By the time other parties got to the cheese, we'd been asked for suggestions (such as "which one was it that made you drop you fork and whimper with pleasure?") and everyone was chatting away. For the record, the nigh-orgasmic cheese was an Epoisse-like washed rind that smelled awful and tasted like nothing else I've eaten. And coming from a former cheesemonger (and champion of British cheeses) that's praise indeed. The home made biscuits were also spectacular.

And there are still eight dishes to run through. Yes. Eight. The punning Expearamenthol Frappe - meringue, pear puree, frozen coffe and, er, eucalyptus ice cream was a palate cleanser extraordinaire. Chocolate Orange - with beetroot, pomegranate, almond and cocoa poder, cocoa nibs and a rich chocolate cream underneath it all - was impeccable. The the petit fours... oh god, the petit fours. Olive oil Turkish Delight was just delicious. Almond nougat with cassis jelly was superb. Shotglasses of Tiramisu flavours, chocolate straws with peppermint creams, perfect macaroons with black pepper and cherry jam were also good, but all trembled before the lemongrass ice cream enclosed in white chocolate.

I've got to stop. Not only is the battery dying but I'm fresh out of superlatives. If you get the chance, go. If you don't get the chance, make the chance. L'Enclume was a glorious experience.