L’Enclume, established in 2002 by Simon Rogan, is situated in the historic village of Cartmel which is tucked away in the southern Cumbrian Lake District, just outside the boundary of the National Park. The most striking landmark of the village is the beautiful 11th century Cartmel Priory. The village is very picturesque with the River Eea meandering its way through the centre of the village.
It became apparent from conversations with the very genial staff that L’Enclume fondly muse about the time they were ‘just a very good restaurant in the Cumbrian countryside’. While they are evidently proud of their two star Michelin status, there’s an ethos here that the label doesn’t mean very much unless their customers have an experience of outstanding food and customer service. Both need to cross the finish line together; one delivered without the other would be failure for them.
So why the name L’Enclume I ventured to ask? It is French for ‘the anvil’; that much I knew. It so happens that the word ‘anvil’ comes from the fact that the original part of the L’Enclume building formed part of the blacksmith’s forge that belonged to the Priory. The exterior of the building has been left in keeping with its original heritage and any unsuspecting person not aware of the prestige behind the stone walls and the name displayed on it, could be forgiven for passing it by.
The evening set for our visit was a lovely, surprisingly mild, spring evening. The weather had been kind and allowed us time to take in the geography and atmosphere of the village. In doing so, we were able to identify some of the birdsong being broadcast for all to hear adding to the tranquil atmosphere of this village as the day closed in.
Our table was booked for 7pm. I had decided to not let my expectations get away too much as I have had some experiences in the world of fine dining which left a little to be desired. This was mainly because their effort to be different and outlandishly creative was mostly lost on me.
And so we arrived and were welcomed most warmly. I was struck with the nice informality of the place. The décor is understated and minimalist with a contemporary feel to the place. I liked the fact that the area around us and our table was well lit (but not harshly so) as I liked to see what I’m eating and dim light can play havoc with my amateur attempt at food photography! While the walls are all white, there is a low ceiling with wooden beams creating a cosy, yet airy atmosphere. There is no carpet on the floor or curtains on the windows, which could allow a high level of noise in the restaurant when filled with people enjoying themselves. However, this never seemed to be an issue; it may have been because we were conveniently tucked away in a corner of the restaurant partitioned off from what appeared to be a larger area of dining space.
L’Enclume makes no bones about the fact that they don’t ‘do’ menus. All that’s on offer is a tasting menu, presented on the night with no previews. To some that might sound too terrifying for words; for me and said partner in crime, it’s perfect because we don’t have the dilemma of choice. You are able to specify any allergies or dislikes at the start of the evening, and then it’s a series of 17 surprises. The first indication of any menu is the sealed, unaddressed, almost mysterious, envelope on our table. It was opened with eager anticipation and it wasn’t long before the proceedings began.
I won’t attempt to describe every dish in intricate detail but will leave the photographs to hopefully do some justice to textures, flavours and presentation. We were told what all the ingredients and flavours were on the plate but I am sure to record them inaccurately here so I shan’t even try.
I certainly learnt how little I knew of the variety of micro herbs and their flavours. The serving staff all knew the dishes intricately and were able to describe them to the minutest detail. Apparently they all have to grow their own micro herbs so they know their look and taste from personal experience. They are also involved in all the foraging that takes place for local hedgerow delicacies; it’s not just the chef’s job which impressed me. This might also be the appropriate place to mention that Simon Rogan has also established a farm situated in the Cartmel Valley close by which also supplies the restaurant with the freshest of ingredients.
I guess, you must be hungry by now and wish I’d get on with the feast. Well, here goes.
First the menu, which comprised five canapés, four starters, four mains and four desserts:
First up, the oyster pebbles. Unfortunately it is difficult to distinguish what exactly we were eating from the photo below. I assure you it wasn’t the pebbles! It’s the little grey macaron under the green leaf. Both partner in crime and I were hugely relieved there wasn’t an actual oyster (as they aren’t our favourite) but actually a very pleasant mousse.
Next, mackerel, served on seaweed crackers (like Chinese prawn crackers – but much nicer!).
Next, the smoked eel. This was an extremely delicious morsel. I wasn’t sure what to think of the description ‘with ham fat’ as I’m not a fan of ‘fatty’ things, but there was no need to panic. It was a crispy ball of loveliness.
Then chicken skin and black pudding. Of the five canapés, I enjoyed this the least. As already said, I’m not a fan of ‘fatty’ things, so the chicken skin was bit too rich for me and perhaps expected the flavour of the black pudding to come through a bit more.
And finally, the asparagus and crab sacks and how lovely these were. Served in a purpose-made porcelain sack, they were a delight to the eye and taste buds. (These, and all the ceramics in the restaurant for that matter, are made from local Cumbrian ceramicist Steve Valentine Ceramics.) There were surprises all the way through this dish, starting with a sort of savoury ‘crumble’ topping and ending up with the crab buried at the bottom.
And so to the starters, the first of which was the cod ‘yolk’. This was an amazing creation. The ‘yolk’ was cod that had been liquidised and enclosed with a soft saffron ‘crust’. Now, I like my eggs runny and this one was perfection incorporated; I almost forgot I wasn’t eating the ‘real thing’. The salt and vinegar was all in the bed of crisped rice. Amazing.
We were then presented with a selection of bread rolls: Pumpernickel with cracked wheat, ale and onion. Served with a dollop of soft butter.
These bread rolls were well time, as dishes started to arrive, that need some ‘mopping up’.
I have never knowingly eaten Tokyo turnips, nor did I know there was even such a thing until this evening. But there they were; a small radish-sized turnip. Now that I think about it, it wasn’t a notable experience tasting it against the exceptional truffle sauce that came with it.
Round 8, venison, served raw with mustard and charcoal oil. There are no superlatives for this. I would have done their washing up single handedly to experience this again (and there were a lot of dishes used that night – approximately 1400 dishes we were told!). Stunning.
Round 9, or starter number 4, ox tongue with Cherry Belle radish and bits of foraging. This was a nice dish and great to eat something from a Cumbrian hedgerow; but I was still dreaming about the venison that had gone before …
Time for a breather. By now, as you can imagine, it was hard to keep track of everything. In case, you were wondering, we only just about to start the mains …
First main is prawns and sorrel. This was beautifully presented in a ceramic pot with a lid on – the lid came topped with cold prawn on a crispy cracker and sorrel, and then inside, a warm dish of prawns with a sort of hollandaise sauce.
Round 11, Jerusalem artichokes with goats’ cheese, tarragon and malt. I loved this dish. The presentation and artistry were remarkable and it wasn’t lacking in flavour and texture either. The dark brown, crispy looking things are the skin of the artichokes that were crisped up. These contrasted beautifully with the artichokes that were succulent and tender. Please sir, may I have some more?!
Fish next. Wild bass and cockles sourced from the nearby sea shore. I could have much more of this too. Just so tasty.
The mutton was exceptionally tender and I really liked the grilled celeriac.
We were on a roll now and decided we couldn’t pass on the cheese board … it just looked far too good and interesting.
I can’t remember our choices unfortunately. We did favour mostly British cheese in our choice of 5. They were all great.
Time for the sweet stuff.
Round 13, a crispy rye sack filled with stout ale ice cream with some pears and elderberry vinegar. The instant OMG expression on both mine and partner in crime’s faces, must have been a picture when we bit into the rye sack. We weren’t expecting the surprise ice cream on the inside. The contrast of the crispy rye pastry to the cool, creaminess of the ice cream was sublime. All the sweetness of the dish came from the pears and elderberry. Easily another round of washing up for more of this!
Next up was rhubarb with brown butter, sorrel and apple. I thought the ‘brown butter’ was actually ice cream, but it definitely was butter and this was the only thing I left on my plate. It wasn’t sweet and it tasted like butter which I didn’t really care for. The rhubarb, apple and yoghurt crisp was all very nice.
Round 16 (and one more to go) sheep’s milk, ginger bread, sweet cicely and caramel. The sheep’s milk was like an ice cream but not as rich, sweet or creamy. This was complemented by the crunchy ginger bread, aniseed of the cicely and the caramel.
And finally, sea buckthorn, sweet cheese and malt. For this dish, think ice cream cones. I am not sure where the sea buckthorn came in, but the cones were made from beetroot, parsnip and butternut squash gels. These were wafer thin and were filled with flavoured, ice-cold mascarpone cheese. We really were lost for words on the delightfulness of this dish. Superb.
We’re nearing the end now and to prolong our enjoyment to the end, it was coffee and ‘sweet things’. These mushroom looking beauties were chocolates made of aerated mint chocolate with a dome of ice cream encased in chocolate. How on earth did they make it?
And that’s it folks!
All I can say is that it was fantastic experience and good value for money. The food and service definitely both crossed the finish line together.