Sunday 24 February 2013

L’Enclume - Simon Rogan

In previous posts I’ve always alluded to how (since opening in 2002) L’Enclume has ‘evolved’ over the years. After my recent visit though, and looking back it is clear to me that this is not the case…

Doing away with any Darwinian allusions that L’Enclume’s evolution has come from any kind of accidental or natural organic selection and opportunity, I am left with the belief that its development has, from the outset, been cleverly ‘engineered’ by the ‘supreme architect’ that is the ‘worshipful’ Simon Rogan.

Don’t fear, I am not about to call for you to join a cult called ‘The Church of Rogan’ or ‘The Branch Roganics’ but it is interesting to read that in a 2003 interview with Ben McCormack from ‘Caterer and Hotelkeeper’ (click here for the full article) that Simon Rogan always had a master plan!

The article talks about how there was ‘incomprehension’ from certain quarters for many of Simon’s initial ideas and concepts. It seems, some early reviews, including one in The Guardian by Victor Lewis Smith (see here) failed, at the time, to appreciate what L’Enclume were achieving. (It would be interesting to see if some of these early reviewers have been back and how many of them would now be prepared to eat their words.)

It is now evident, that Simon’s plans were always much greater and grander than ‘simply’ opening what would become one of the country’s best restaurants. From day one, the intention was ‘to put Cartmel on the national map.’ and, I’m sure for want of a better analogy at the time, to become ‘the Rick Stein of the North'.

What follows are selected quotes from the Ben McCormack article; coupled with my assessment of where things stand today.

Come the spring, Rogan launches a 16-course, £90 tasting dinner that he describes as a "blueprint" for what will follow. Ten years ago a 16-course tasting menu was a mind-boggling option for many diners; now such menus are the norm in most high end restaurants.

It marks a bold move away from Rogan's current modern French cooking to something altogether more original. The L’Enclume menu is now almost entirely sourced from Britain if not Cumbria alone.

Seasoning - herbs, in particular - is the focus of the new menu. ~ To this end, he has employed a teacher to research locally growing herbs, which will be specially cultivated for L'Enclume by an organic farmer. I’m sure people at the time would have felt Simon arrogant, if he had said that one day he would have five farms with herbs and produce grown dedicatedly for his restaurants but this is the case now. Not only this, L’Enclume now have their own farms as well as a very successful partnership with veg guru Ken Holland.

Rogan confesses that his ultimate ambition is to do away with the menu altogether, so that diners will simply trust in what has been put before them. It took a while for him to realise this vision but just before they were awarded their second Michelin star late in 2012, it became the case.

Rogan can foresee the day when, rather than having only seven guest rooms, a whole house in Cartmel will be given over to accommodation.’ Another understatement… Simon now has eighteen rooms available in Cartmel for guests to L’Enclume; the second restaurant Rogan & Co. and the newly acquired Pig & Whistle public house.

The article makes no mention of these latter acquisitions; but they, along with the opening of Cartmel Coffee, Unsworth’s Yard with Cartmel Cheeses, Cartmel Bakery, Hotwines and the monthly Cartmel Food Market, have indeed made the village a foodie destination akin to Rick Steins Padstow.

Simon’s ‘grand scheme’ it seems, does not end here – devotees of Rogan’s food no longer have to make the pilgrimage to Cartmel: Roganic, the two year ‘pop up’ in London is reputedly looking for permanent premises and the people of Manchester are eagerly awaiting the opening (on the 12th March) of ‘The French by Simon Rogan’ at the city’s iconic Midland Hotel (see here).

When I last dined at L’Enclume (see here) it happened to be on the day before the Michelin Guide ‘leaked’ the news that the restaurant had been upgraded from one star to Two Michelin Stars.

The ‘menu’ at my recent lunch did not seem to have gone through as many transitions as I have become accustomed to expect between my previous trips.

Although many of the dishes were recognisable incarnations of the dishes I ate in October, this does not mean there has not been ‘developments’.

In October, I wrote that it was ‘one of the best meals I have ever eaten.’  That was true… but this one was better! There seemed to be a greater maturity about the food - almost as if it had in some way ‘found itself.’

This I’m sure has much to do with recent developments behind the scenes – most notably: Roux scholar and Cumbrian hill farmer Chef Dan Cox’s work at their farm is coming into its own; sous chef and ‘Forager-in-chef Kevin Tickle is really getting to grips with his own personal allotment (otherwise known as the Cumbrian countryside.) and, another Roux scholar, Head Chef Mark Birchall is cooking with great confidence.

I’m conscious that this post is already getting very long and I’ve not yet written about one of the nineteen courses I enjoyed so I’m not going to go into my usual detail (I may just highlight any ingredients that I found particularly enjoyable or new.)

Oyster Pebbles – with oyster cream, apple and oyster leaf.

Cockle, seaweed and horseradish – a deliciously light seaweed wafer served on foraged, weather worn ‘concrete’ plates.

Smoked eel with ham fat – these bites, coated in crispy chicken skin are full of flavour. Truly excellent!

Lichen, frozen ox, sour cream – the sour cream had been made with salsify, interestingly, topped with two ‘unusual’ ingredients: crispy lichen and shaved frozen ox tongue.

Kohlrabi, eggs, truffle – the ‘home grown’ kohlrabi had been made into a mousse and placed in the bottom of L’Enclume’s familiar porcelain sacks before being topped with raw kohlrabi and egg yolks that had something clever done to them.

Cod ‘yolk’, sage cream, pea shoots, salt and vinegar – I love contrast of the subtle creamy yolk and cream with the lip smacking intensity that comes from the salt and vinegar puffed rice.

Bread – the usual selection: Pumpernickel, Wholemeal and White with local Loweswater Gold Ale.

Westcombe dumpling, vegetable broth, beetroot and winter shoots – I love this dish as it really shows off how L’Enclume use herbs and salad leaves to season and add flavour. Against the clear beetroot broth each of the leaves (borage, mustard cress, nasturtium, apple marigold) brought a different flavour profile.  

Valley venison, charcoal oil, mustard and fennel – This dish is a true work of art; it looks beautiful and the tartare of venison loin from nearby Holker Estate is always exceptional quality. The caper jam, diced cornichons, shallots, fennel cress and globes provide a perfect synergy of flavours.

Valley mushrooms, yellow pea and lettuce, smoked marrow and stonecrop – For this dish (one of my favourites of the meal), Mr Tickler had been busy in the hills sourcing the mushrooms: English white cap, Scarlet elf cup, Blewits and Judas Ears. The other interesting ingredient was the use of the slightly sour succulent leaves from a type of sedum known as ‘stonecrops’.

Mussels in their own juice, cabbage and leek – another beautiful subtly flavoured and well balanced dish with ‘triangular garlic’ a ‘new ingredient’ to me that piqued my interest.

Artichokes with goats cheese, tarragon, malt – this artichoke dish in one form or another has been on the L’Enclume menu for quite some time; crispy artichoke skin is a real favourite.  

Lemon sole, grilled carrots, Manx queenies and celandine – the sole was obviously cooked to perfection and the celandine leaves were a new ingredient to me; but the aspect of the dish that I feel needs the most attention was the Manx queenie scallops that had been cleverly seasoned with their own roe.

Reg’s Guinea Hen, turnip shoots, potato, offal and scurvy grass – the sunrise element of this dish was the rich ragout that that had been made with the guinea hen’s hearts, livers and kidneys. Wonderful stuff!

Sea buckthorn, buttermilk, liquorice and butternut – the sea buckthorn sorbet is such a delightful intense flavour it livens up the buttermilk and butternut squash; the powdered anise hyssop and shoots adds a whoosh of freshness.

Rhubarb with brown butter, wild sorrel, apple – poached rhubarb with a brown butter and crisp brioche ice cream; I particularly enjoy the yoghurt tiles.

Honeycomb, quince, chestnut and perilla – I love quince and it paired beautifully with the chestnut sauce, shaved chestnut powder and clever take on ‘honeycomb’ made with some LNwizardry.

Pear, sweet cheese and parsnip – three, tasty savoury ‘petit fours’ to end the meal.

Coffee and petit fours – a ‘Kendal mint cake’ ice cream and aerated chocolate bonbon with a shot of ristretto

Friday 22 February 2013

Great British Menu: Chris Holland – The Alderley Restaurant

Since discovering that the chefs representing the North West on this year’s Great British Menu were Aiden Byrne, Aumbry’s Mary-Ellen McTague and Chris Holland, I was especially excited to watch.

Firstly, I was glad that each of the chefs actually live and work in the North West as this has not always been the case. The fact that I have eaten in each of their restaurants on more than one occasion and know their food well also added interest.

With Mary-Ellen’s and Aiden’s illustrious Michelin starred backgrounds, Chris Holland was perhaps always going to be considered the underdog.

In my opinion, Phil Howard, the two Michelin starred chef / proprietor of The Square in London, made an excellent judge. I felt his comments were fair and his criticisms were always constructive. His scoring too, generally seemed bang on.

This brings me to my main point - as I watched, my twitter feed was buzzing with people sat at home agreeing and disagreeing with Phil’s and the judges’ scores. This begs the question, how can people pass judgment (as I did too) when they haven’t even tasted the food? (I’ll get to this in a moment.)

This can also lead to a bigger question: What qualifies a food blogger or restaurant critic to pass judgment on a chef’s food? Even when they (we) have eaten it!

Just last week on twitter I saw a fairly well respected chef questioning a food critic about this very subject; saying something along the lines of  ‘What qualifies you as a so called food critic? Have you been a chef? Do you cook every day?’ In this case, the ‘so called’ food critic had worked in professional kitchens and does indeed cook regularly at home.

Personally, although I feel I am a fairly competent cook, I eat out far too much to claim that I cook ‘regularly’ and I have never been a chef. So what qualifies me to make the comments that I do in my blogs? In short… absolutely nothing!

Phil Howard’s former employer, Marco Pierre White, famously handed back his three Michelin stars, saying of the guide’s inspectors, “I was tired of being judged by people who had less knowledge than me.

When it comes to cooking, I certainly have less technical knowledge than most (if not all) the chefs on whom I pass judgment. But isn’t this just the way of the world?

Doesn’t every footie fan sit in their armchair or stand on the terraces shouting ‘advice’ at professional footballers? Likewise, everyone who watches programmes such as the X-Factor suddenly become music moguls with the voices of angels. Many people will also confidently tell you that Tracey Emin’s bed is not ‘art’.

Art is obviously highly subjective and sport stars are subject to changes in ‘form’. Despite differences in tastes, music is perhaps easier to ‘judge’ because of the mechanics of pitch and what is ‘in tune’ - so you don’t have to have to be able to sing to be able to judge musical talent (i.e. Simon Cowell and Tulisa!).

Like music, when it comes to food people have different preferences and palates but there is also a set of generally accepted criteria about what are agreeable flavour combinations (which some chefs like to challenge.)

At the end of the day, whether I am qualified to judge or not, like footie fans or people viewing art… I’m going to do it anyway!

(In my defence, I like to think I have a decent palate and a reasonable knowledge of different foods and ingredients and many ‘benchmarks for quality’ and ‘experience’ from eating in a myriad of ‘top’ restaurants.)

What follows are descriptions of Chris Holland’s Great British Menu dishes (complete with my unqualified judgements), which are currently being served at The Alderley Restaurant.

On the show, Chris served Phil Howard ‘An oriental broth with a twist’ which featured a ‘technically challenging beef stock jelly’ and noodle dish, in the guise of a chocolate bar. Phil Howard liked the concept but felt there were temperature issues and gave it 6 points.

On the Alderley menu, Chris has replaced this dish with ‘A Breakfast to Start’ that features a slow cooked free range egg, Jamón Ibérico, beans and toasted soldiers. The flavours were bold with great textures and, Mr Howard, it was nice and hot! On taste alone I’d happily award this dish an 8 but I’m not convinced it nailed the brief so I think a 7 is more apt. 

Gone Fishing’ was a dish that impressed on TV. With its quirky ‘fish pond’ presentation, cured and smoked salmon, apple pickle, horseradish and toasted beigel, Phil gave it 8 points.

The humous comes from ‘Bertie Bass’ the fisherman (as mine was called) casting his rod into a smoky ‘pond’ and dish based on the idea of a ‘deconstructed’ smoked salmon and cream cheese beigel.

The most fun of the edible parts of the dish came in the form of a Beigel shaped savoury horseradish ice cream. This I felt worked really well adding an underlying heat that was punctuated by the delightfully smoked salmon, sweet and tart apple components and heavenly Ebène caviar.

Phil gave it 8 points, questioning the sweetness of the ice cream. I don’t know if Chris addressed this but I’d also happily give it an 8.

Pork and Pineapple with a Smiley Face’ whilst it didn’t split my sides, when this dish was placed in front of me it did manage to illicit a wry smile. I loved the pork elements: belly, fillet and scratchings and the rib meat contained within the smiley face. The blue cheese, sage crisps and charred brassicas were also very good.

Apple sauce is the perhaps the most commonly accepted accompaniment with pork but I’m not a fan of its sweetness. The pineapple gel, jelly and dice took this a step further wand was not to my taste. Phil scored this dish a 7. If the pineapple was toned down, I’d agree but with the sweetness intact, it’s a 6 from me.

The ‘Refresher Course’ of a lime espuma with lychee granita and popping candy was not a part of the Great British Menu but as a refreshing palate cleanser (and nothing to do with the brief) I’d award it an 8. 

The ‘Brie and Toffee Apple’ “cheese course” was another that wasn’t featured on the GBM show.  The whipped Wigmore cheese and apple aspect of the dish was great but I didn’t like the red nose toffee apple with it at all – sticking a red nose on something does not make it funny… we are reminded of this each year when Lenny Henry wears one. 5.

Bananas are not one of my favourite fruits but I loved Chris’ ‘Going Bananas’ dish. I thought it looked the (monkey) business and the flavours had great synergy with the banana, chocolate brownie, peanuts and rum flavours. There is also something intrinsically funny about a banana.

The ‘banana’ itself was made from a creamy white chocolate parfait and the ‘skin’ from a banana flavoured sugar candy. Mary Ellen said, “There’s nothing really wrong with any of it but there’s nothing that makes you go wow either.” Whilst I agree that there will perhaps be other deserts on Great British Menu this year that offer a bigger ‘wow factor’, I really enjoyed eating Chris’ dessert. Phil gave it a 6. I’d give it an 8.

Judgements aside, the main thing to remember that Chris Holland is a great chef serving some excellent food (Cheshire Life’s NW Chef of the Year, 2012) and the Alderley Restaurant is a wonderful venue with three AA rosettes. You could go at any time of the year but why not go soon for the Great British Menu? It’s for a great cause… 10% of the menu’s cost goes to Comic Relief!

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