The North West Heat of the Great British Menu is shaping up to be fantastic viewing. Newcomer to the contest, Simon Rogan’s dishes are already wowing judge Marcus Wareing. Those in London may have sampled his gastronimic delights at the “pop up” Roganic, but what about Simon’s original stomping ground in Cartmel, the North West of England, L’Enclume? We sent Great British Chefs guest blogger Deanna Thomas along to find out….
Photography & Review by Deanna Thomas
To be honest, I was apprehensive about reviewing this one. L’Enclume has consistently wowed diners and critics with its molecular gastronomy and is currently rated at number 2 ‘Top 50 restaurants’ in the Good Food Guide. Like opera is to pop music, the style of food produced here is on another level and would be virtually impossible to replicate at home. It treads a delicate balance between a real affinity with nature, and scientific boundary-pushing.
Every dish is put together using several involved components, each in turn with a mind-blowing array of individual processes. The restaurant has its own development kitchen/science laboratory, full of chefs’ toys and contraptions which can deconstruct all manner of vegetable matter and refashion it into different forms. My worry was that during all this gastro-processing and ever-so-clever reconstituting, had they forgotten the basic objective of feeding hungry customers with actual food? Would we be served several platefuls of clouds, spumes and foams? Flavoured and powdered air and things that look like soil but aren’t?
Cartmel is a beautiful village full of pretty, painted Lakeland stone houses, independently owned shops and old fashioned English pubs. L’Enclume overlooks the gardens and the babbling brook to the ancient church beyond. Many ingredients come from their own six acre farm which provides them with a level of almost total control from field to fork. Each dish features lesser known herbs and leaves which are so fresh they’re picked only a few hours before each service.
The format is simple; there is no ‘a la carte’ menu as such. Diners choose from two set eight-course menu’s (one vegetarian) for £69, or a 12 course menu for £89, and are asked to declare any special dietary requirements at the point of booking. If you prefer to choose your own three course meal, try Simon Rogan’s brasserie round the corner ‘Rogan & Company’
We contemplated the view and the menu over a cucumber scented gin and tonic, duck skin scratchings and lightly puffed tapioca crackers. The menu is a bit of a tease. There’s no way anyone could guess what a dish could possibly be by its description alone - that’s part of the adventure.
The first items to arrive were simply described as ‘onion cheese wafers’ and were thin, translucent crisps topped with shavings of frozen cheese, intense onion marmalade and slightly sweet biscuit crumbs. What a great way to get the taste buds woken up and tingling.
This was closely followed by ‘Oysters pebbles’ – soft, savoury, grey meringue and oyster leaves nestled in camouflage amongst a bowl of real pebbles. The fleshy leaves combined with the aerated squid ink infusion giving a real wave of sea-salty tanginess.
Soon after appeared ‘carrot sacks’. I wasn’t sure which part of the carrot was it’s ‘sack’ but it turned out to describe the little ceramic serving pots containing emulsified carrot mousse hiding chunks of lobster, and topped with carrot cake crumbs.
A trio of warm bread rolls were brought over at this point – dark and nutty pumpernickel, spelt and barley, and white organic flour, with whipped, salted butter.
Simon Rogan loves the purity of earthy vegetables and native leaves, elevating them out of the background and into the spotlight they deserve. His dishes strive to capture the essence of an English pastoral landscape - silky golden turnip dumplings drizzled with a strong cheesy dressing of Westcombe cheddar, crispy Alexander leaf tempura and rock samphire.
Next, tartare of valley venison on a smear of darkly-fried onions, dots of English mustard, crisp celery, shallots and two tiny, intensely flavoured fennel sweets which quite unexpectedly burst their liquid-centre into our mouths under only the slightest pressure.
The pace of service, like everything, is closely controlled by the kitchen and at this point they allowed for a little break before presenting ‘Dublin bay prawn in pig skin, beetroot and sea beet’. The pig skin added a contrasting crunch to the prawn in the form of a coating of the lightest crackling. Beetroot appeared in triplicate - a golden puree, pale yellow shavings and their green oceanic cousin, sea beet. The dish was drizzled with warm concentrated seafood bisque.
Sole fillet, cockles, crow’s garlic, celeriac and chestnut puree was a delicious combination of flavours and textures topped with fried winter cabbage leaves. I imagined the head chef standing at the pass holding his checklist to ensure it was perfectly balanced – hot, cold, rich, light, nutty, sweet, fresh, soft, crunchy. Yes, all those boxes of adjectives ticked, ‘service!’
Lightly cooked Dexter beef appeared next, with tiny squares of tripe braised in a slightly fishy concentrate (oyster sauce?) Bold colours came from a syrupy reduction of red cabbage juice, watercress puree and crispy marrowbone. Like a good cast in a West-End play, each element absolutely supported the beef without letting it dominate.
The marrowbone was smoked before being used to infuse balls of bechamel coated in breadcrumbs. This put us in mind of Findus Crispy pancakes of all things. Ever since my husband commented that Wagyu beef reminded him of the burger in a big Mac, I’ve realised that the mind reaches for comparative flavour memories to bring an element of comfort and familiarity. Now we’re being honest, the stuff they used to stick the pork skin to the prawn reminded me of the squeezy flavour sachet you get with a Pot Noodle. See? This has a lot to do with personal nostalgic taste references.
That was the end of the savoury wave, which made way for desserts – but, being in L’Enclume, not as we know them. Enter the most dramatic dish of the day, ‘sea buckthorn, anise hyssop, liquorice and butternut’, a riot of aerated textures, the eating of which was not unpleasantly like fighting with a cloud. Butternut squash was dehydrated and its dried natural fibres morphed into something resembling a sea sponge.
The bright orange was mirrored in a sharp sherbet tangerine sorbet, and offset by warm liquorice custard. I’m not sure in what form the sea buckthorn came (though I promise I was listening) but, as it’s also bright orange, could have been the powdery sprinkles. Anise hyssop leaves were dotted around the plate. Further research told me they are related to sea buckthorn which shows Simon Rogan to be a man who studies botany and uses families of plants and vegetables to inspire his dishes.
The final dish was a pretty riot of colour and texture - a witty play on cheese and biscuits. Smooth, frozen cheese ice cream and bright green sorrel granita, bright pink rhubarb syrup, poached pear and short, crunchy hazelnuts biscuits.
To cook this style of food successfully you need to be obsessed with detail, have natural ability and an intimate knowledge of ingredients. I also think it’s imperative to back it all up with a sense of fun – which really appeals to our British eccentricity.
It’s almost impossible to communicate how any creative experience makes you feel, which is why I was so apprehensive about writing this review. To report that I ate sea buckthorn and anise hyssop is unlikely to inspire anyone to visit - no more than my attempt at singing a libretto would get you all fired up for a night at the opera. However, we had fun, it wasn’t at all pretentious or intimidating, and we never did have to stop for a burger on the way back.
Deanna Thomas reviewed Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume for Great British Chefs.
You can see Simon Rogan on series 7 Great British Menu competing for the North West this week. Which are your favourite dishes from Deanna’s meal. We’ll be discussing this over on Great British Chefs Facebook Page.