Monday, September 11, 2006

L'Enclume (December 2004)

We got to chatting about L'Enclume over lunch at Arpege. Which reminded me I ought to go back there...

The view over the bay as you travel towards Grange Over Sands, the closest station to L’Enclume, is breathtaking as only nature can be. I’d forgotten we had scenery in England. From my seat the train track seemed to rise from the water, curving away from land on both sides with an almost supernatural aspect. Even if you have a car, leave it at home, because the journey, for me, was a huge part of my L’Enclume experience. Chef Simon Rogan later talked to me about how he’s glad that he didn’t originally open in Brighton as “this is food from nature” and that he would be “uncomfortable” cooking his food in an “urban environment”. The scenery around the restaurant, the green, the bay and the misty hills all adds to create a feeling that you’re leaving the man made world behind and stepping into a completely different realm.

The feeling of otherworldliness was a broken on my cab journey to Cartmel. All isn’t well as it could be in the village. Relations between L’Enclume and Rogan are tense with the villagers feeling that the restaurant isn’t good value for money and Rogan feeling that he’s not supported locally. It makes a strange dynamic for visitors; I received nothing but the warmest welcome from everyone I met, but I did get the feeling that most people thought I was completely insane to travel from London just to eat in a restaurant. What’s strange, to me at least, is that L’Enclume is exceptionally good value and the food, although innovative and sometimes sublime, is very accessible and cooked & served with such passion that even someone who’s happiest with steak and chips could be delighted.

Much has been made of who influences Rogan. But he was keen to set the record straight that when it comes to Chefs; Veyrat has his heart. I have a sense of a Saul of the road to Damascus type conversion for Rogan after eating here and certainly this evangelical zeal came through when we spoke. He’s a driven man, irked by the UK’s need to compartmentalise what he cooks, the lack of support from locals and being ignored by Michelin in 2004. But I didn’t eat a meal created in anger. I ate a meal that’s all about harmony and balance, a meal that is probably the most finely balanced degustation menu I’ve ever eaten. Rogan conjures with his ingredients and was able, over the 20 courses I ate, to take a multitude of preparations and flavours and tie them together into a cohesive whole. He pulls flavours that you would expect in desert forward into the meal by serving a perfect piece of John Dory alongside bergamot aromas and swirls of sticky caramel that had been taken to the very edge of caramelisation. Coming after a less successful dish of brill cooked in clay that smelled like my school’s artlab and before two perfect slices of loin of lamb with cumin bouillion and grains of paradise that offered up flavours of citrus, cardamom and pepper and wafted Moorish scents into the dining room, the John Dory was a sensory reminder of what was to come, as well as an outstanding dish in its own right.

There’s something primal about L’Enclume. This isn’t intellectual, show-off food that appeals to the head. It’s about nourishment and awakening; my meal sated my hunger, but also stimulated my eyes, nose and tongue. I tried flavours I had never or rarely eaten before; coltsfoot, myrhh, eucalyptus, perilla, but that shared a strange aspect to their flavour profile, all of them are haunting, resonant flavours. My favourite dish of the night was cubes from land and sea with eucalyptus hollandaise, a trinity of lobster, sweetbreads and girolles, napped with a verdantly green sauce. The three major ingredients all had a meaty textural similarity that heightened the incredible sweet/herbal flavour of the dish that remained long on the palate. It was unlike anything I’d eaten before, a texture dish that relied on all textures being similar to express flavour.

The innovation at L’Enclume comes from techniques and presentation. The unusual ingredients are generally from nature so it’s technically incorrect to describe them as innovations. They’re revivals. There were a few foams, most successful of which was a strawberry mousse foam that sat rigid in a perfect cube of the plate. A proper foam, if you like, not one of these wannabee foams that squirls all over the plate. This was an upright, stiff upper lip English military foam that literally stood to attention. “Virtual tomato” was a scoop of snow-like tomato, the texture of which just vanished when I closed my lips leaving behind the ghost of a tomato flavour. It didn’t absorb, it didn’t melt, there was no osmosis. It’s the Harry Houdini of the tomato world. Imagine the nitro and green tea mousse from the Fat Duck, but take away the texture. Dishes felt more three dimensional than at any other restaurant I’ve eaten at. A beautiful pyramid of foie gras, a cube of foie gras with black truffles, coated and deep fried, a perfect quenelle of foie gras ice cream go together to make up “Cubism in Foie Gras, two cold, one hot, cantaloupe, fragrant myrhh, almond cake” a dish that literally rises up out of plate, almost too beautifully composed to eat. Rogan can’t just cook food, he’s amazingly artistic, using contrasting colour and flavour to animate his food.

So what’s wrong with L’Enclume? The service needs work and the wine pairings were pretty poor. I know almost nothing about wine so I like to leave the choices in the hands of the sommelier. There were no pairings available the night I ate there, but a new restaurant manager is joining soon so I would guess this would change. It will be hard for Rogan to get all the stars he wants if the wine service isn’t as inspiring as the food. As it was I drank a fairly mediocre glass of champagne (there was no choice on offer) a half bottle of Sancerre that killed the “Half soft and scrambled eggs, soy, wasabi, smoked cod froth” and was killed by at least two other dishes. A glass of Chilean Pinot Noir worked well with my lamb and carried me through nicely to the cheeseboard that’s nurtured and loved by Mary, one of the most experienced servers there and someone with such an obvious passion for L’Enclume and cheese it almost brought a tear to my eye. The rest of the service was technically adequate, no more so, but always sweet and charming. I’ll forgive a lot of things if they’re done with passion and care.

L’Enclume has been a sleeping giant of the English restaurant scene for too long and he’ll be recognised by Michelin this year. This is, at the very least, two star food. Most appealing to me though was that this is a really English restaurant, despite the fact they have an all French cheeseboard, with a spirit unlike anywhere else I’ve eaten in the UK. L’Enclume isn’t part of a movement. And I loved it all the more for that.

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