Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Restaurant review: L'Enclume, Cartmel

L’Enclume is the poster child of the slow trend. There’s a very off-grid feel to the whole thing. From the moment you arrive in Cartmel, unplugging is the name of the game. It’s a village with little phone reception, and even fewer parking spaces, so you end up abandoning the car somewhere far away, a bit like a naturally-occurring Center Parcs.

Its relaxed vibe was well-timed. Sartre and I had spent a fractious day – I’d worried him by pointing out a signpost to Gretna when we were up at Keswick, and he’d vexed me by insisting on a trip to the Derwent Pencil Museum.

Negotiating the village on foot is very much part of the experience. You could be 200 miles from the M6, not 20. And the fact Cartmel is in the Lakes, but doesn’t resemble Lakes topography at all, adds to this uncharted feel.  

We stayed at L’Enclume in the little collection of rooms by the same name, across the village from the restaurant itself. As the sun sets, you’d be hard-pressed to find something nicer than having a drink on the tiny square, bordered by a traditional English pub on each side.

Having slaked our thirsts and forgiven each other for the crimes of the day, we wandered under the medieval arch and down the lane to L’Enclume.




L’Enclume means anvil in French and there are bits of rusting farmyard machinery artfully placed through the restaurant. The white-washed stone walls and cottage garden glimpsed through the windows make you feel as if you’re in Cesar Soubeyran’s house.  

Marcus Wareing has been quoted as saying ‘formality is out’ in modern dining and that’s in evidence here, not just in the rustic simplicity of the room.  Simon Rogan’s able front-of-house crew are enemies of the frosty and stuffy. They’re warm and engage you in chit chat. (On hearing our account of the day, the waiter was clearly on my side on the Derwent Pencil Museum).  



I think the current foodie craze is built on the fact that people seek out novel experiences, rather than just a preferred option. It taps deep-seated human drivers like adventure and self-improvement. For me, L’Enclume delivers supreme novelty in an understated way. You don’t get stories behind the dishes or fussy presentation, you just get jaw-dropping cooking, with well-produced ingredients in daring combinations.

The alchemy comes to life in plate after magical plate (and sometimes, slate, bowl, or miniature rockery).  Local produce is the backbone of the menu – in fact, L’Enclume grows many of its ingredients on its own farm just outside the village - but is served in concert with the odd exotic ingredient. 




If one (unreasonably talented) chef made each of the 20 courses we ate that night from start to finish, one after the other before moving on to the next one, it would take two and a half months.  Which certainly encourages you to appreciate every bite. A few of special note:

  • The oyster pebbles – perfect little oyster-flavoured meringues, served with a herb that tastes exactly like oysters . (We either looked like fine dining rookies or two very hungry people, because our waiter felt the need to advise us not to eat the real pebbles that the dish was served on).
  • Cream celeriac and ox tongue – the meaty tongue submerged in the delicious celeriac and Tunworth mixture, like a lurking edible Nessy
  • Potatoes in onion ash – quite remarkable flavours from humble ingredients
  • Iced blueberry and sheep’s milk – the latter delivered as tiny spherical balls of pure dairy oomph

The skill level is immense and awe-inspiring. The gods of the kitchen managing to create gasps of wonder (and hisses of envy) with every dish. And it’s miles away from being a vanity project. It’s all unfailingly delicious.

If you seek escape from life’s algorithms and want to eat food that gives you bragging rights for life, then book your trip now. Just bear in mind your drive home will probably mean an encounter with service station food – the definition of a rough bump back down to earth.  

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