The Lake District would probably not be somewhere you would associate with cutting edge cuisine but since 2003 it’s been home to L’Enclume, one the UK’s most innovative places to eat. They also provide rooms for guests to stay in and do a special couple’s deal that includes accommodation, a bottle of champagne on arrival, an eight course dinner and a full English breakfast for £319 in total.
I’d read a lot about chef and co-owner Simon Rogan over the past few years and for my birthday we decided to avail of the promotional offer by taking a trip over to see if his restaurant lived up to its reputation. Here they take the local and seasonal mantra that many profess but don’t practice to its extreme by running their own organic farm meaning a lot of the ingredients on your plate will probably have been picked on the day.
We arrived for check in early in the afternoon but I won’t go into to much detail about the hotel as it’s not what this review is about; it’ll suffice that the room was fabulous and the complementary champagne was excellent as well. We had booked our table for eight o’clock and when we arrived a little early we were brought to a seating area where we could browse the wine menu whilst our table was being prepared. We also took the chance to upgrade to the twelve course tasting menu costing an extra £15 each. The building is an old converted blacksmith’s but the dining room is strikingly modern, lots of cool slate and minimalist design touches sympathetically wrought so as not to make the space feel sterile.
Shortly after being shown to our seats we were brought the amuse bouche which was a deep fried parcel of local black pudding and roasted leeks. I’m a big fan of blood sausages in general so I really liked this and it was also was nice to see a Michelin star restaurant using such an unglamorous ingredient to set the the tone for the meal.
The first course proper was the intriguingly named carrot sacks with ham and juniper: these arrived in small metal containers that looked, unsurprisingly, like soil bags and held a carrot puree covering a ham flecked jellied stock. The carrot and the juniper went particularly well together and the saltiness of the ham offset the sweetness of the carrots very nicely.
Next up was one of the best and most technically accomplished and ‘modern’ dishes of the night. It featured what the menu called a ‘cod yolk’ which turned out to be a saffron dyed cod mousse that had been gelled and then surrounded by cream of egg and garlic so it actually looked like an egg. Beside it were crispy grains of rice dusted with salt and powdered vinegar and the way it was all plated in a deep bowl meant you couldn’t eat without breaking everything up and mixing it together to give a lovely contrast of different tastes and textures. The combination of cod and salt and vinegar was also a clever and playful nod to fish and chips, still one of the most enduring and popular foods in the UK.
Following on from that piece of trickery was something far more prosaic but none the worse for it: fresh curds and oxtails with grilled lettuce and English mushrooms. Aside from the curds which I felt didn’t actually taste of anything this was very good; in particular, the accompanying mushroom consommé was outstanding and really accentuated the flavours of the other components and again it was nice to see a humble cut like oxtail being used in a restaurant of this calibre.
No sooner had our bowls been cleared by the waiter then the next course of potted char, radish, fresh cream, dill and rye toast was presented to us. I was very impressed with how the suberbly restrained combination of five unembellished ingredients all worked so well together, the skill in executing such refined simplicity should not be underestimated.
Once more there was little pause before the next plate of food came out, this time a vegetarian dish of jerusalem artichokes, crosnes, fresh goats cheese and tarragon oil. If like I did you’ve no idea what a crosne is I’ve since found out it’s another name for the Chinese artichoke. All the ingredients gave an incredibly earthy flavour (there was even an edible powder that looked like soil) and the tarragon oil provided an intense herby note which was actually a little overwhelming; I would imagine this austere combination could easily feature at somewhere like Noma but for me it was a bit much.
When the roasted cauliflower, baby squid and elderberry vinegar arrived about two minutes after we’d finished eating again I was starting to get worried because the food was just coming out far too quickly; there was no chance to savour what you’d just eaten and I was starting to feel a bit full. I looked at my watch and saw that we were already half way through the menu yet we’d only been sitting down for about thirty five minutes. Thankfully, it was the last time we felt rushed and everything slowed down to a more sensible pace for the rest of the night. I really enjoyed the squid but expected a bit more impact from the cauliflower seen as though it had been roasted; the elderberry vinegar was a lovely and unusual way of providing the acidity seafood has such an affinity for.
What came next was a mixture of simplicity and science resulting in probably the poshest egg and chips I’ll ever eat! It featured an smoked yolk cooked in a water bath for three hours at 65°C and seaweed, crisp chicken skin and some chipped pink fir potatoes deep fried in chicken fat. When an egg yolk is cooked at low temperatures like this something strange happens to the texture and it becomes spreadable like butter and that’s exactly how I used it on my chips; there was also supposed to be horseradish included but I couldn’t taste it at all which is quite strange given how strong a flavour it is. No matter though because everything still worked perfectly well together even in its absence.
It was then back to a more elemental style for our halibut, cockles, scorzonera (a type of salsify) and broccoli shoots: another judiciously restrained combination of ingredients that allowed an absolutely beautiful piece of fish to really shine.
We were coming to the end of the savoury part of the menu and the main course of venison, chestnuts, pickled kohlrabi and mulled cider was one of the best of the whole meal. Obviously, it was a top quality piece of meat (and cooked sous vide, it couldn’t be anything but perfectly done) but the real highlight was the cider sauce, a lovely combination of sweet and tangy but also very light it tied everything together exquisitely.
It was now time to move onto the puddings and first up was cream crowdie with Douglas Fir (yes, the tree, there was even a twig as a garnish) and rhubarb; decidedly nontraditional, the crowdie had been made into a crunchy powder while the rhubarb had been incorporated into crushed ice. It was actually quite disappointing overall, I couldn’t discern any flavour from the fir and the other two parts didn’t taste of very much either; the most interesting aspect was the texture which is not really much of a compliment.
This was followed by something much better though: a creamy sea buckthorn puree paired with malt that had been rolled in liquorice and blackberry powder to make it look like a Basset’s liquorice allsort all sitting in small pools of Cumbrian dark beer. I’d never had sea buckthorn before but it was excellent, the massive hit of intense citrus was a tremendous counter to the sweet, earthy anise and malt.
The final dessert featured the most unusual combination of ingredients of the night: apple sorbet, thyme custard and beetroot. When I read it on the menu I’d a feeling this would go one of two ways, either it would be a great success or a complete disaster and the good news for us was that it was the former. The star of the dish was the custard which acted as the bridge between the thin slices of beetroot and the sorbet, not too sweet or overpowering and wonderfully unctuous it was a perfect foil for the other two gutsy flavours.
Although technically at the end of the meal there was still time for one last surprise when the waiter brought over two glasses of what transpired to be parsnip milkshake and grated nutmeg; it was really good, so much so that I asked the waitress how it was made but unfortunately she didn’t know. The natural sweetness of the parsnips came to the fore first followed by an unexpectedly rich creaminess and I thought it was a great way to end things because of how surprisingly refreshing it was.
Because my wife is pregnant and can’t drink I ordered wine by glass instead of getting a bottle, I think for a fourteen course tasting menu it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise especially for only two people because there’s no way you’re going to be able to match such a diverse range of food to just one or two types of wine. Unfortunately I don’t have any of their names but the first was a German Rielsing that paired excellently with the cod ‘yolk’ especially. I then had an outstanding South African sauvignon blanc (I wish I remembered what it was called so I could see if it was available in Ireland) which worked best with the squid, I thought. I moved onto red for the venison, a luscious Pinot Noir from Burgundy and finally a dessert wine from Australia that improbably as it seems managed to handle both the sea buckthorn and the beetroot equally well.
Service would probably be the main thing I’d have to mark down here, despite their reputation I’ve often found the staff at most Michelin star restaurants to be amiable and willing to have a bit of a joke and a chat but in L’Enclume it wasn’t the case at all, everything was very efficient (and as I’ve pointed out earlier, a bit too efficient at times) but almost bordering on brusque. In saying so, once the maitre d’ started looking after our table things improved as she was really nice and much more friendly. You may also have noticed when I was describing the wines I had that there was a big gap as I moved from white to red and it was because even though my glass was empty for three courses no one bothered to ask me if I wanted any more and the sommelier never came over to give another recommendation; at this level of dining and price there shouldn’t be these sort of lapses.
However, it would be wrong to end the review on a bad note because L’Enclume is a magnificent restaurant serving brilliant food and it actually surprised me somewhat given the old reviews I had read; I certainly expected more Ferran Adria like deconstructions and Blumenthal style showmanship but aside from one or two flourishes this sort of trickery was very much the exception for our meal. Instead, a lot of dishes were beautifully pared back featuring just a handful of ingredients of impeccable provenance which were really allowed to speak for themselves. Of course, it’s all quite current too given what Rene Redzepi has been doing for the past few years but it’s still quite unusual and refreshing to see a lot of the typical fine dining tropes such as foams, heavy sauces, large amounts of dairy and foie gras being completely absent. From what Rogan has been saying in recent interviews he’s really keen to develop his minimalist approach and I would thoroughly recommend the journey over to try it for yourself.