First of all Cartmel, even without a trip to L'Enclume, is an absolute treat. A tiny picturesque village that sports a couple of really nice pubs, a lovely deli/post office, the odd gift shop, a fantastic micro brewery and a seriously serious cheese shop all tucked away in the mountains of Cumbria populated with people that are happier than your average Joe, presumably because they get to live in Cartmel. What a great start! It didn't take us long to find the delightful age old converted smithy sitting next to a tiny river which was, once again, populated by ducks that looked happier than your average Joe.
Through the door we went for our 1pm booking. Straight away you realise that the property has only roughly been converted, there is still exposed brickwork and pipework is visible alongside the absolutely gorgeous furniture, ample collection of rocks and ad hoc modern ornaments which are housed in the four walls. The layout too betrays the fact that this building was never intended to be a restaurant, there is a small bar area, a larger dining area and then a wonderful, light and spacious conservatory with views of the river, the garden and the imposing Cartmel Priory. As it was a fine day we were seated in the conservatory which I misleadingly labelled as spacious, it does feel spacious but at the same time it does only contain 6 tables, it is a contradiction of itself, it feels cosy and private at the same time as being a little bit communal, there were many moments when we interacted with the other guests which I will come to later on. Anyway we loved the bricks and mortar as well as the relaxed atmosphere.
Once seated the gent who was running the front of house approached us and took us through the menu options explaining that if there were any dishes or ingredients that we were not keen on the kitchen would be more than happy to prepare something else for us as we wished. This was thoroughly unexpected and confounded another of my expectations that fine dining menus would be inflexible, that (allergies aside) you would get what you were given. I must say at this point that the gent was probably the most likeable and friendly waiter I have ever met, from the moment we walked in he was cracking jokes and making us feel at home whilst at the same time never compromising his professional demeanour. He spoke with supreme confidence about the food and it's provenance as well as handily rolling out funny anecdotes left, right and centre. Apparently their forager is called Mr Tickle, this is funny in itself.
While we pondered the menu we enjoyed a gin and tonic each. We had asked for a 'ginny gin' and that's definitely what we got. The Bedrock Gin produced locally and utilising the springs of Cumbria for its water was really ginny. I think ordering a ginny gin and tonic before every meal featuring adventurous flavours will become a new tradition, it's a really good way to kick things off.
We decided to go for the 6 course menu for £35 rather than the 19 course for £95 which seemed far too extravagant. I think the plan we always had was to go for the smaller menu and if we loved it we could go back another time for the mega menu. Kicking off the proceedings was a Cod 'Yolk', Sage Cream, Pea Shoots with Salt and Vinegar. The apostrophes around 'Yolk' may have given it away but I can confirm it was not a yolk despite its distinct similarity visually, once it was burst a delightful, runny fish sauce escaped on to the plate and engulfed the puffed rice that it sat on. It was a nice way to start the meal, quite a subtle flavour and soft textures all round combined with an intended punch of nostalgia for us as the dish triggered memories of salt n vinegar Chipsticks. I'm sure that's not quite what Simon Rogan was going for but it didn't matter, it added an element of fun that we really enjoyed.
As soon as the amuse bouche was dealt with a tray of bread rolls and salted butter arrived. There were 3 different rolls, molasses, onion and thyme and one with a distinct ale flavour. They were all very nice and fresh, even when picking at them towards the end of the meal the rolls had kept a little bit of their warmth.
The next course was Westcombe dumplings, vegetable broth, beetroot and winter shoots. The broth is poured at the table, this little bit of theatre ramped up the excitement levels by one. This really was one of the most beautiful dishes I have ever had the opportunity to cast my eyes over, I don't believe the super rich colour of the broth is captured in the photo below, it has to be seen with your own eyes. The flavour was not as striking as the presentation, it was a very subtle blend of earthy flavours, absolutely nothing in the dish overpowered any of the other elements. Jules confidently proclaimed that she would attempt this dish at home, I wasn't too sure about this and after finding out how the dumplings are made I became significantly less sure that a home cook could come anywhere close to this. The only thing I would say that could be a slight negative about this dish is that the broth could have been a little bit hotter although saying that the supremely delicate cheese dumplings probably would have disintegrated at any higher temperature.
With the warm broth settling nicely in our bellies the next course arrived in the shape of Valley Venison, Charcoal Oil, Mustard and Fennel. At this point I let out an 'oooooh' as the menu had not let slip the fact that the venison was being served raw. I was a little unsure of this but this doubt was quickly displaced with my first mouthful of venison, I've never tasted meat so delicate and fresh before. The whole dish tasted like Spring, it was a triumph.
This was the first point in the menu that Jules received a different dish, the pescatarian option consisted of Artichokes with Goats Cheese, Tarragon and Malt. I didn't hear much complaining from Jules about this dish as it was quickly dispatched. The presentation was faultless, the artichoke skin had been cooked to a nice crispy texture and the pool of goats cheese, much like everything else, was fresh and delicate.
We were all back in the same boat for the main course as we all received Butter Poached Hake with Mussel Cream, Grilled Carrots and Brassicas. There isn't much to say about this dish apart from the fact that it is far and away the best fish dish I have ever tasted and I believe it all comes down to that cooking method. Now for starters do not think that butter poaching is one step away from deep frying, it isnt, it is in fact a really healthy way to cook a bit of fish as the butter is clarified so it retains flavour but not fat. The end result is a fish that actually looks a little translucent inside but again do not fret, it is cooked through but it is beyond delicate. Before moving to the next course we politely declined a visit from the cheese trolley as we were a little full at this point, sadly we were absolutely full of REGRET when the cheese trolley made an appearance for the table next to us. We couldn't keep our eyes off it as it majestically rolled across the dining room floor issuing a blend of cheesy fragrances. We (and everybody else in the room) were so obviously rubber necking that when the guest was asked to pick a cheese he loudly proclaimed "perhaps everybody else could tell me what they would have picked?". The whole room laughed, it was a lovely moment.
We were in to double dessert territory now and the first was Sea Buckthorn, Buttermilk, Liquorice and Butternut. The elements were arranged in three quenelles topped by a tuile. It was a nice way to present this dish as it allowed you to play with different combinations of elements in different quantities on the spoon. Very nice but not my favourite dessert of the day, that was up next. Saying that this was Jules' favourite dessert of the two, she absolutely loved it. I had ordered a plum sake to accompany my desserts, not because I thought it would be a good match with the sweetness of the desserts but just because I am always interested in sake in all its forms. The one thing that did make me laugh though is that the sommelier took my order, brought the drink over and then told me he thought it was probably going to be a bad pairing. That might have been more useful advice prior to getting the drink but it didn't matter anyway as it wasn't a bad pairing, I still really enjoyed it and the odd timing of the advice made me laugh rather than niggled me.
The final course was Rhubarb, Yoghurt Mousse, Hazelnuts and Sorrel. Now normally I am not a big fan of rhubarb in any of it's forms, be it crumbled or fooled. I can take it or leave it I suppose. Well I certainly couldn't leave this! I have never tasted rhubarb like it, sweet and soft and tender with a beautiful pinkish hue to it. Even without the other elements on the plate the rhubarb was a sensation on its own. Apart from the sorrel syrup, the other ingredients of hazelnut and yoghurt were fairly traditional accompaniments but the dish did not suffer for it. Absolutely fantastic.
And it was done. No more. Finito. Finished. Nope, we couldn't accept that so we ordered 'coffees and sweet things' from the drinks menu. The 'sweet things' turned out to be a Kendal mint cake ice cream atop a disc of aerated chocolate. It was a very traditional and non experimental bit of food to end the meal on but that doesn't mean it was any worse for it or that it didn't receive the same care and attention that any of the other items received.
Then it was definitely over, we had a final conversation with the man who knew everything, paid the bill and we were off out in to the brisk almost freezing air of The Lake District. Again just like Aumbry the meal had felt like it moved rapidly but it was never rushed, the end result is that it feels like it whizzes past and you struggle to go back and remember everything. We spent the next couple of hours playing over the meal in our heads trying to articulate all the different flavours and experiences trying to decide on favourites.
You may have noticed that I have used the word 'never' and 'ever' quite a lot in ths write up and that is because the meal was so full of new experiences for us and the quality was of such a level that these words have to be used. I had never had a meal like this before. Most of the dishes were the best I had ever had. I don't want to use the word 'perfect' but it can't be far away from that, maybe the best phrase to use is 'almost faultless'. Even that isn't really fair though because the 'faults' aren't really faults, just elements that I wonder could be better another way, I could be completely wrong so they aren't really faults are they, they're just 'wonders'. The common thread that links all the dishes was that they all tasted fresh and this must be in no small way down to the methods applied to obtaining the ingredients through foraging and local production. I must also say that this is an absolutely ideal restaurant for vegetarians as at no point is meat or fish the focus, it is always a balancing act and the vegetarian dishes are celebrations of all that is great about vegetarian food.
The restaurant is a fantastic set of pleasing contradictions, new and old, familiar and unfamiliar, formal and relaxed, delicate and strong, private and communal. This was a very special meal and we will be going back for the 19 course menu later in the year once we have allowed this experience to settle in our memory. I don't see how it could be any better but I'm willing to give it a go. So another high end restaurant that breaks down my preconceptions and delivered a warm and welcoming experience. Where to next?