Friday 30 March 2012

Aulis at L'Enclume

Warning: this is a long one. Please take the time to read it if you are interested in my ramblings and want to know some of the finer details of L’Enclume and Aulis’ food – if you have less time, or inclination, just note this: if you have enjoyed food at Roganic in London; or L’Enclume in Cartmel; or perhaps have read about or seen Simon’s food on TV, then Aulis is definitely for you.

Like every self-respecting foodist, my early memories involve food. As a child, my most loved stories were the Gingerbread Boy and the Runaway Pancake. I also recall playing with the off cuts from my mum’s pastry with shaped cookie cutters - my favourite being the penguins that I’d make with raisins for eyes.

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on the kitchen counter with my feet in the sink watching my mum cook and bake. I also remember being fascinated as she spun sugar to make candyfloss (cotton candy for my US readers) when working on the fairgrounds.

Spending time in our caravan we would have barbeques and cook on open fires, occasionally catching rabbits for the pot or foraging for wild ingredients. I remember standing next to my father observing him toiling with the barbeque and innocently asking, “Dad… do you like getting smoke in your eyes?”

As I grew older, the rising popularity of the television chef, through people like TV-am’s Rustie Lee; the late, great Keith Floyd; MasterChef with Lloyd Grossman and then Ready Steady Cook further fed my voyeuristic food desires. 

Nowadays, Great British Menu (this year, L’Enclume’s Simon Rogan will be making his debut appearance) and the revamped versions of MasterChef are always set on series link.

My fascination with watching people cook even extends to looking on as they expertly wok away in the open kitchen of my local Chinese and at the tossers in Domino's.

At the other end of the spectrum, for my birthday last year, my wife arranged to me to spend a day in the Michelin starred kitchen of Marco Pierre White’s and Simon Gueller’s The Box Tree, watching Chef Dan Birk at work (see here).

In New York, bagging a counter seat at the two Michelin starred Momofuko Ko to watch David Chang’s crew prepare their phenomenal food ranks among my most amazing dining experiences (here). Similarly in NYC, the concept of the ‘Chef’s table’ was taken to new heights last year when Brooklyn Fare were awarded three Michelin stars. 

Closer to home, many top restaurants now have chef’s tables, including Pétrus, Dinner by Heston, Benares and Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley. The two starred Restaurant Sat Bains not only has a Chef’s table, but has gone a step further by opening up its experimental ‘Kitchen Table.’

Most restaurants with Chef’s tables offer an ‘opportunity to glimpse into the workings of a professional kitchen’ but sadly, despite having a Michelin star and being one of only eight restaurants in the UK with 5 AA rosettes, Simon Rogan’s kitchen at L’Enclume is too small to accommodate a table for voyeuristic gourmands.

Fortunately however, by opening up Aulis, the Research and Development Kitchen adjacent to L’Enclume, they now offer so much more than a simple ‘chef’s table’ and an opportunity to ‘glimpse’.

Since hearing about Simon’s plans to open up Aulis as a dining destination (when I last visited late October), I knew it would be an experience I would relish.

Headed up by Chef Dan Cox whose twitter bio (@ChefDanCox) lists him as ‘Director of Aulis RD, Roux Scholar 2008, L’Enclume Cumbrian hill farmer’, diners at Aulis are treated to a personal private dining experience that I certainly found unimaginably special. Being just the fifth booking in what is a new and developing project for Dan, Simon and the L’Enclume empire was an absolute honour.

With regards to honour, the facility was named in memory of Rogan's chef de partie Leo Aulis who tragically drowned, aged just 28. Housed in a narrow space that was built in the 17th century as a stable block and more latterly served as the village of Cartmel’s post office (the post box is still positioned outside), Aulis can now be booked for up to six diners.

Of course, some diners may just be seeking the experience of dining with the luxury of a private chef; others, like myself, will I’m sure be more interested in the technical and creative inspirations behind the food and will want to ask questions.

Indeed, my experience was more than just a meal; it was an education – Dan was prepared to divulge all the methods, techniques and philosophies behind food and talk about the provenance of the produce that makes L’Enclume and its sister restaurants so special.

What Simon, Dan and the team at L’Enclume are working to achieve is truly special and their passion is infectious - all of the staff seemingly go above and beyond what is expected in order to push for excellence. For example, sous chef and chief forager, Kevin Tickle (@mrTickler on twitter) had given up his day off to procure some sea herbs for my meal and pastry chef, Michael Engler (@michaelengler84 on twitter) had spent the best part of the morning perfecting sugar apples for my dessert.

Having made good time up the M6, I arrived early with the intention enjoying a stroll in the sunshine around the marvellous medieval village and visiting Cartmel Cheeses and stopping by the Village Shop for a sticky toffee pudding and some Bluebird Bitter; I also intended to enjoy a tea and scone in the Cartmel coffee shop.

Instead, strolling past L'Enclume though, Simon and Dan were just crossing the cobbled yard between L’Enclume and Aulis. "You're early," Simon said, "I'm just about to pop to the farm to pick your dinner; you can come if you want."

So less five minutes later, there I was in the glorious Cumbrian sunshine having a guided tour of L’Enclume’s farm. Considering that just six months previously there was a messy dilapidated farm strewn with various objects of farming machinery, what they have going on there now is amazing – to my mind, all guests should be taken out there before a meal.

To see the passion and thought that goes into it all is phenomenal. In the rows and rows of raised beds and poly tunnels I spotted a whole host of wonderful things growing, including: elderberries, artichokes, nasturtiums, rosemary, thyme, English mace and red pak choy.


Longer-term plans were evident with the orchard of newly planted fruit trees and Douglas fir and the woodland area being prepared to introduce more livestock to add to the large flock of rescued battery hens that already enjoy the freedom of the breath-taking Cumbrian hillside setting.

For a foodie like myself what was truly wondrous to witness was a ‘celebrity’ Michelin starred chef of Simon Rogan’s calibre risking a dunking to personally pick fresh watercress from the babbling brook for my dinner. (To think that at the weekend, I bought a bag of the stuff from Waitrose – it will just not be the same anymore; form now on I’m going to always want it picked fresh my own private Michelin chef!)

Returning from the farm, I was still an hour early for my reservation and took up a seat in L'Enclume's tranquil garden aside the River Eea. Sitting there with views of the Cartmel Priory, listening to the birds twittering and watching the ducks glide gracefully I jotted notes for the above writing on my iPad, for a city dweller like myself this was absolute bliss.

Having just returned from Simon’s farm, it was strange to think that just three hours before I had been at work in Wythenshawe on ‘Europe's largest council estate’. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the hustle and bustle of cities: I am a Londoner, I love London, I now love Manchester where I live but the English lake district is undeniably a uniquely, special place.

They say Guinness tastes better in Ireland and that macarons taste better in Paris. With that in mind, all Londoners that have eaten at Roganic should make the pilgrimage to its spiritual home, here in Cartmel. I've not yet eaten at Roganic but surely Rogan's cuisine has to taste better up here? Especially when it's been picked an hour before being put onto the plate.

Casting my eyes over the menu I was delighted to spot some of my favourite flavours and ingredients including: rhubarb, smoked eel, hake, pickled cucumber, pearl barley and cox’s apples. The menu also featured some more intriguing components that I have either been keen to try again or would be tasting for the first time such as woodruff and penny royal.

Rhubarb and milk curds, watercress and seeds – having seen Simon pick the watercress just an hour before I was really looking forward to this dish, which also featured the seasonal delights of rhubarb.

Watching Dan assemble this dish before my eyes with such concentration and attention, using care to place each delicate component with expertise added immeasurably to my enjoyment. The rhubarb had been cooked in a good quality late harvest wine vinegar and whilst retaining a sweet and vibrant flavour it was made savoury with the freshness of the milk junket and seed mix.

Beetroot, smoked eel, potato, apple marigold – it was as Dan explained the processes that were involved in making the sweet, crisp beetroot cones that I knew it would be pointless attempting to try and keep up taking notes.

Dan, being responsible for overseeing L’Enclume’s farming and growing programme is rightly proud of their ‘home gown’ produce. It was really interesting to be offered further tastes of the different ‘micro greens’ or ‘cresses’ – I must admit, that in the past I have considered these largely garnish but tasting the ‘apple marigold’ on its own there was a discernable apply taste, reminiscent of the skin of a Granny Smith – I’ll never look at micro salads so dismissively again – a revelation!  

Mushroom bread, St. James, carrot and tarragon – the mushroom ‘bread’ having been made with porcini mushroom powder and Japanese kuzu was more of a wafer, which was then set with four different types of mushroom including wood blewits and shimeji.

Cubes of Martin Gott’s St. James cheese (made with the milk from the sheep raised on the local Holker Farm) were as tasty as always. However, it was the carrot and tarragon, cleverly emulsified to take on an entirely new flavour that was the real surprise element of the dish.

Crispy mash with pork belly and mustard mayonnaise – these were stunning. After Dan had explained how many complicated processes had been followed to achieve the crispy ‘roast potato’ tasting coating I have to be honest, part of me did think “Was it worth it?” Biting into the second one, the answer was undoubtedly, “Absolutely.”

Roasted onions and pearl barley, rainbow chard and buttermilk – rainbow chard is a beautiful and easy to grow vegetable that I have had success with at home. Here the buttermilk added a real freshness to the roasted onions and broth. The puffed pearl barley supplied a welcome crunch.

Throughout the meal, I found Dan so natural and easy to talk to – we discussed music, travel and restaurants around the world, petrol prices, football, growing vegetables, London, chicken and bee keeping, and the joys of Keith Floyd but most of all food. From talking to Dan throughout the four hours I spent in his company, it is clearly evident that he is extraordinarily passionate about his work – both on the farm and in the kitchen.

Bay crab, pickled cucumber, woodruff – showcasing delicately cooked, almost translucent crab meat paired with the fresh lightly pickled cucumber and woodruff - a wonderfully sweet subtle dish.

Whilst there are still pieces of Limoges and other French crockery lingering from L’Enclume’s Gallic origins, much of the food is now artfully served on or in Cumbrian ceramicist Steve Valentine of Edge Ceramics’ hand rolled creations (see here) – just one example of how the Rogan philosophy continues to champion the local region.

Chicken oyster, salsify, English mace and chicken juices – the oysters are my wife’s favourite ‘cut’ from the chicken and, as a result, I usually let her have them; so it was a rare treat to get three for myself – the jus that had been made with the bones had an intense chicken flavour. Definitely the best chicken dish I have eaten in a long, long time. 

Mussels with cavolo nero and sea herbs – the locally sourced, deliciously plump mussels were paired with home grown cavolo nero (black cabbage / Tuscan kale) and, thanks to Mr Tickles foraging skills in the Cumbrian countryside and salt marshes, an amazing selection of some of the UKs finest sea herbs: sea arrow grass, sea beets, sea asters and the pick of the bunch, for me, bucks horn plantain.

Hake and broad bean tops, cauliflower and vinegar – Hake has long been one of my favourite fishes; this was perfectly cooked and accompanied by wonderful broad bean tops and delightful tiny cauliflower florets cooked with more of that magnificent late harvest vinegar and a verjuice.

I found it slightly amusing that despite that fact that Aulis’ countertops resemble a school chemistry lab with cutting edge kit like an Anti-griddle, Gastrovac, Rotary Evaporator, Induction-heated blender, Sous vide bath and Pacojet – there was still a place for humble home style equipment such as the Aerolatte milk frother- I’m guessing they’re happy to use whatever equipment will get the results and help the food taste great.

Spring Lamb, purple sprouting, salt baked turnip and lamb fat – featuring exquisitely tender Lamb leg from the Holker raised sheep herd’s that supply the milk for the St James’ cheese. Dan simply cooked the purple broccoli florets on the plancha to create tender singed effect that added a remarkable flavour and texture.

Sweet clover mousse with granola and Anise hyssop nitro – for this course Dan and I took an excursion into the night air with a dewar flask to collect some liquid nitrogen form the nearby store. Returning to Aulis, Dan duly sprayed an anise hyssop liquid into the nitro so that the spray instantly frozen to create a texture like no other. A beautiful tasting and refreshing course – like a Pastis without the alcohol content.

Just as Dan was plating this up, Simon once again popped over (as he had a couple of times throughout the evening) to see how things were. I was certainly not receiving a rushed service but food prepared with extreme care and skill.

Cox’s apple with lemon thyme – previously, I have eaten food created with similar techniques at the Roca bothers’ Moo in Barcelona with their ‘Golden Egg’ and ‘Coffee Bean’. As impressive as this type of dessert can look, it’s the flavour that is all-important and the mousse spectacularly captured the sprightly flavour of cox’s apples.

Hazelnut and sheep’s milk, meringue and sorrel – this time the milk from the Holker estate sheep had been made into a sabayon and set with gelatine to create a milky sweet mousse that reminded me of Barratts Milk Gums (in a good way). The young sorrel leaves were the stars here though, providing a wonderful citrusy zing.

Penny Royal aerated ice cream with butternut – the mint flavoured penny royal had been made into an aerated ice-cream that seemingly vapourised inside my mouth, leaving a smooth cream with the sweetness of the squash and crunch of the meringue.

It was a shame when the meal came to an end but after sixteen courses and the time knocking on for midnight, I, and I’m sure Dan, after a long day (he was up at seven watering on the farm) was keen to start heading home.

L’Enclume is more than just one of the most exciting and talked about foodie destinations in the country – and just as everything at L’Enclume; its ‘little brother’ Roganic in London; Rogan and Co in Cartmel and their farm feeding the restaurants is in constant development, I’m certain that Aulis will also continue to grow and get better and better. (Though I can hardly imagine how this could be the case.)

As I mentioned above, I feel privileged to know that I was Aulis’ fifth customer; whilst London’s Critical Couple were the fourth - read their review here or at least know that they summed up their thoughts with this line “This wasn't just a memorable meal, it was a deeply memorable and unique experience, and on that basis trumps almost everything else we've written up on this blog for the enjoyment we took from it. In fact, we believe Aulis is the most exciting thing in the UK's restaurant scene right now.”

So there you have it, the ‘Critical Couple’ and ‘hypercritical Hungry Hoss’ both think Aulis is one of the ‘most exciting things in the UK’s restaurant scene right now’. My final thought being, If Brooklyn Fare in NYC can get three stars – why not here?

L'Enclume on Urbanspoon

Monday 26 March 2012

Afternoon Tea at The Midland Hotel, Manchester

Major cities throughout the world each have their own ‘Grande Dame’ hotels. New York has the Plaza and Waldorf=Astoria; London the Ritz, Savoy and Claridge’s; Singapore has Raffles, whilst Paris has too many to mention. Manchester’s is undoubtedly The Midland Hotel.

Built in 1903, the Grade II* listed building is perhaps most well known as the place where Mr. Rolls met Mr. Royce and decided to make motor cars. Perhaps less know, Wikipedia also informs that the hotel was ‘allegedly coveted by Adolf Hitler as a possible Nazi headquarters in Britain.’

Equally renowned the impressive number of guests who have stayed or dined there, the hotel is as infamous for those that have reputedly been turned away – including The Beatles for being "inappropriately dressed" and artist David Hockney for wearing odd socks - over the years standards have obviously lowered because they recently let me in for afternoon tea.

Originating in England in the 1840s the quaint custom of afternoon tea is one that quickly spread throughout the British Empire. Whilst the once Michelin starred French Restaurant at The Midland is the more celebrated, it’s the magnificently Moorish Octagon Lounge at The Midland that serves the hotel’s Afternoon Tea.

It’s usual too book ahead for afternoon tea at The Midland but I called in on the off chance. I chose to be seated in the grandeur of the Octagon Lounge (or Court) as opposed to the people watching vantage point overlooking the grand entrance hall and reception area.

Whilst the Midland has modernised over the years, there is still a sense of being transported to another time. The glass dome that once topped the octagonal light well has gone but the grand Moorish lantern (suspended on a chain for setting at different heights) still impresses.

The British Empire has gone, the dome has gone and sadly so too has a good measure of the hotel’s former opulence. The Radisson at the converted Free Trade Hall is now the city centre’s only 5 star hotel (with the Lowry over Irwell in Salford).

I’m certain it is uncouth for one to say one is having afternoon tea; it’s much more proper like to say that one ‘partakes’ of afternoon tea – usually with one’s little finger poking out.

The table freshly set with fine linen and teaware, I was presented with a complementary glass of Marsala wine – a nice touch. I had selected a Green Leaf Tea, which soon followed. The tea was good quality, light made from young, good-sized leaves (no fannings).

Presented on a traditional three-tiered stand: the bottom tier was composed of sandwiches traditionally cut into delicate fingers; the middle tier gave a sultana scone with cream and preserves, whilst the top was regally crowed with delicious looking cakes.

The sandwiches featured mostly classic combinations; some with subtle twists, such as the: Apricot, Cucumber & Cream Cheese and, my favourite of the tea, Salmon Symphony on Pumpernickel Bread.

The Chicken with a Tarragon Mayonnaise was also nicely done with generous slices of chicken. Less impressive were the Sliced Ham with Seeded Mustard & Honey and Egg Mayonnaise with Cress.

Moving to tier two and the Freshly Baked Sultana Scone. It seems too long since I’ve had a scone; I think that there needs to be some sort of scone revival à la macarons and cupcakes.

Served with Cornish Clotted Cream and jam, in this case, Organic Strawberry Preserve and Fruits of the Forest Compote there is little finer – what’s more, they are quick, easy and delicious. Thanks Midland for reminding me of the joy of scones.

The crowing glory of any afternoon tea is the cakes, whilst not as visually impressive as some fanciful creations you can get these days, for the most part these were good.

Having made many a visit to the three shops in Bakewell (The Bakewell Tart Shop & Coffee House, The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop and Bloomers of Bakewell), that each claim to own the original recipe, I know a good tart when I see one – The Midland’s Bakewell Tart was actually one of the best I’ve had in a long time.

The Chocolate Slice, although a little uninspiring for such a grand setting was also tasty enough. More disappointing though was the pastry on the French Fruit Tart that was hard.

Although it pains me to use a word such as ‘mediocre’ to describe anything to do with what is undoubtedly one of Manchester’s finest buildings with such an important and rich history – the quality of the food leaves me with little choice. For the overall experience however, I’d definitely go back – and after my afternoon tea taster, am more eager than ever to finally get along to The French at The Midland. 

Octagon Lounge at the Midland Hotel on Urbanspoon

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