Introduction by Hungry Hoss
I noticed on Twitter, a few days ago, a series of tweets from Stephen Jackson (@TheLittleChef) who had been dining at Aulis, Simon Rogan’s Research & Development Kitchen, which excited me.
As a huge fan of Aulis and Simon Rogan’s food in general, and having eaten there myself (here) shortly after it first opened to the public, I was keen to share Stephen’s pictures with a wider audience. So I asked Stephen if he’d be interested in writing a ‘guest post’ for the blog.
At the time of asking I didn’t realise that as well as being a celebrated chef in his own right, as owner of T & Cake in Almondbury (and formerly Weaver’s Shed – reviewed here by Jay Rayner), Stephen is also a member of the Guild of Food Writers and regularly writes for the Huddersfield Examiner (see here).
Aulis ‘guest post’ from Chef Stephen Jackson - February 8th 2014
Simon Rogan is a genius. Forget about his magical cooking ability, his imagination, his love of ingredients, his enthusiasm, his sense of humour. His genius is that he seems to be able to delegate at superhuman levels. Not only does he own the mothership, L’Enclume itself, but in the same village he oversees Rogan & Co. and The Pig & Whistle pub.
A couple of hours further south there are the Mancunian outposts of his empire, within the Midland Hotel, once a bit of a faded old tart of a place, now sparkly and bejewelled with the brilliant Mr. Cooper’s House & Garden, the bold, brasserie-style dining room, and The French, which I’ve yet to visit (roll on May 2014!) but which I’m told echoes L’Enclume’s utter perfection and attention to detail.
Now, a year or so after closing his London ‘pop-up’ Roganic, he is set to take the reins in the dining room at Claridges for the next decade or so. London is lucky to have him back. And I can’t see it being anything other than a huge success, because, as I say, the man is a genius. He can simply take the time to evangelise to another group of super-talented young men and women, set them down somewhere, and up sprouts another incredible restaurant. Where many others, including the talented Raymond Blanc, Gordon Ramsay and the north’s own Paul Heathcote have failed, Rogan appears to be able to spread himself ever thinner with absolutely no apparent dilution of quality.
I’ve long been a fan of the man since reading that he and I shared a love for French chef and lunatic Marc Veyrat, especially his passion for wild plants and foraged food. My first meal at L’Enclume, now a distant happy memory, was the secret ‘Underground’ menu I’d been tipped-off about, and which was so long it necessitated arriving at the restaurant at half-past six! Plate after plate of tiny, intricate dishes came and went, each one as astonishing as the last; gorgeous harmonious flavours, playful techniques, but at heart it was just terrific, intelligent cooking.
Since then, his style has developed to become almost unique, comprising a love of British recipes and ingredients. He loves old methods of gardening, such as clamping, designed to boost flavour. His cuts of meat are simple, humble even, yet treated with infinite care. Vegetables, deconstructed and reassembled in breathtaking ways on the plate, dominate the menus. It’s wonderful. In addition, for the grace-notes of each dish, his teams of cooks scour the countryside for the tiniest earthy mushrooms, the tenderest wild leaves, tart wild berries and coastal plants, popping with iodine flavours. And in the kitchens, these ingredients are brought together in a baffling manner that is at one turn intricate, yet also dazzlingly simple. Things lie together on plates that have never been paired before. There are no towers of ingredients, no tablespoon smears and no errant herbs. The dishes, often set on stoneware plates or wood and Cumbrian slate, look like beautiful still life paintings, completely natural, harmonious, brimming with a sense of terroir and, most importantly, begging to be eaten.
But he doesn’t stop there. For several years now, a separate kitchen, Aulis, has been operating just next door to the main restaurant, where dishes are worked and worked until they are perfect. It’s named after L’Enclume chef Aulis Lehtimäki, who sadly died a few years ago, and it is a cutting-edge development kitchen, brimming with hi-tech food gear and staffed by Rogan’s famously multi-talented cooks, part-farmer, part-food scientist, part-chef. These guys are a new breed, and far from the kind of guys I trained with, where recipes were closely-guarded secrets and kitchens were largely unpleasant, aggressive places. Now, most kitchens have taken this collaborative open path, and it’s most refreshing. Every meal I’ve had in Aulis has been about as good as it gets. Not only does one get to eat these incredible, unique plates of food, but one interacts with the cooks, who share all their knowledge with you as they cook. It’s like a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture with snacks. You’re dazzled.
For many years, the dinner-performance chef at Aulis was Dan Cox, terrific chap, but he has now got something a little more pressing to deal with, namely running Claridges. No pressure there, then. But he still races up and down the country, checking in on Aulis and how the dishes are coming along in advance of the big launch. And it was dishes from this menu that we were about to try. Many were still in development, and may not see action. Most, however, will be tweaked ever further towards perfection, then given room on the auspicious opening menu.
Mise En Place
Our dinner began with a warm welcome from the two terrific cooks who were to be our guides for the night. Opening the door and then the sparkling wine was the lovely Lucia Corbel, who’s very much the farm liaison for the restaurant – she’s the one who knows when everything’s going to be ready in the fields, polytunnels and sheds. Alongside Lucia was Rory Sheehan, who’d worked at James Knappett’s Kitchen Table and Sweden’s famous Fäviken restaurant. Charming, both. So here’s the menu.
I know, right? Your eyes glaze over at what you’re in for. It goes on forever! And to accompany this, a selection of intriguing wines, which are poured very generously throughout. I offer this as a slight warning. I’d been at work since 7 that morning, drove 2 hours through the rain and had a couple of glasses in the pub beforehand. By the end of the night I was, frankly, a little over-tired! Pace yourself for Aulis. It is a long, if brilliant, process.
We began with a small snack of squid and oyster. Cooked by simply freezing and thawing the thing, then dicing it incredibly small, the squid was sea-fresh and tender, with a little oyster cream, some earthy radish shoots and a little burnet leaf from the farm, all set into a crunchy half-pipe of squid ink cracker. Burnet is one of my favourite wild leaves, full of fresh cucumber-y notes, and it set off the iodine-fresh flavour really well. A terrific start.
Butternut Ox Heart
Next up, another tartine-style snack, based on a crisp made from butternut squash, so full of flavour it was almost overwhelming. I’d had a similar dish here last time, made from Jerusalem artichoke. It’s the cooks’ love of getting pure vegetable flavour that boosts so many of these constructions. They poach the butternut, then dry it before frying it to a crisp sheet. Awesome technique with devastating results. On top was a little smear of mustard, some fiery cress shoots and a topping of micro-shaved ox heart, braised sous-vide for hours, then grated from frozen. The whole thing almost had the flavours of a Reuben sandwich, incredibly. Maybe a little dill-scented pickle on there and they’d have it 100%!
Black Pud Potato
Next up was a simple snack of local black pudding, nice and rich with herby notes, wrapped in a thin potato sheet and deep-fried. The sort of snack you’d like a huge bowl of, before sitting down to the match.
Next up, possibly my dish of the night. Lucia gently poached quail eggs, and the two of them then carefully syringed out the yolks and replaced them with a thick, slightly jellified crab bisque, so intense and fresh. The re-formed crabby eggs were then placed atop crisp plancha-grilled baby kale leaves which were unbelievably tasty and crunchy. The symbiosis here was perfect. A blast of fresh sea-spray, with the deep crab flavour and creaminess of the egg. Truly magnificent.
Rory then placed a small Dutch oven pan on the bench, and revealed a small sourdough loaf which was made with rye flour. It had undergone a really slow fermentation and then super-steamy bake, so not only was the flavour incredibly rich, but the crust was super-crunchy and chewy. Just brilliant. With this, a simple celeriac custard. I say simple; it probably involved many separate processes, but it was pure, creamy celeriac, topped with a little home-made kvass, a Russian fermented bread ‘jus’ which married up with the fresh bread wonderfully.
The roots of dandelions, like chicory, when processed, make a bitter extract very similar to Camp coffee, and the next dish was based around this deeply aromatic syrup. Farm carrots, properly carrot-flavoured (it’s hard to remember sometimes what a carrot really ought to taste like!) had been baked in clay to seal in the flavour, and were then gently cooked with carrot butter and a little dandelion extract along with some slowly-braised coxcombs. I like coxcombs, but for me this dish seemed a little unbalanced. It needed something smooth like a puree of the roast carrots to bind everything, and there was a little too much comb to carrot, ratio-wise. I’d have also had some crunchy element there, perhaps a piece of the comb crisped in chicken fat. By no means bad, it was just a slight disappointment. We ploughed on!
Another contender for dish of the night followed. Gorgeous fresh white crab meat, fatty and flaky, served atop some simply-stewed rhubarb with microscopic dabs of liquefied Ragstone, a goat’s cheese from Herefordshire and finished with some sharp chicory leaf. Harmonious, fresh and tingly, this dish is about as perfect a mouthful as you get.
Next up, Lucia gently warmed a small panful of beautifully smoked curd cheese, and small quenelles of this were spooned into bowls of an intense, sticky-sweet shiitake mushroom broth, alongside some lightly-pickled shiitake (they grow them at the farm) and tiny, peppery nasturtium leaves. The smoke wasn’t too insistent, and balanced with the umami-ness of the broth wonderfully.
Lobster Turnip Dill
Next up, a wonderfully fresh clash of fresh and gently-poached lobster, with the clean, Nordic flavours of turnips (tiny, white navet-style ones) and fresh, aromatic dill. A great way to follow the intensity of the previous dish, and a brilliant showcase for the tasty Cornish lobster.
And the next dish floored me. As we finished our lobster, Rory had been butter-roasting the pigeon crown, and it was now carved and finished in a sort of liquorice-root gel, before being rolled in golden roasted hazelnuts and set atop some cubes of amazing lightly-smoked beetroot and garnished with baby ruby chard leaf. It was quite exceptional, the gaminess of the bird absolutely brilliantly counterbalanced by the light liquorice and intense nut flavour. A wisp of smoke from the beetroot just coated everything in a warm, comforting fug. Very similar to a great pigeon dish I had at The Ledbury a few years ago.
Radish Mussel Apple
The next dish didn’t wow me, I’m afraid, in that, like the carrot plate, it seemed a little atonal. Baby radishes had been coated in a little sticky kvass reduction and served alongside a nicely tart chunky apple sauce. Two perfectly-poached mussels finished the dish, but I felt they were almost surplus to requirements, or at the very least a little bland for the other flavours. I think something meaty may have worked well here, like perhaps a buttery sweetbread. Maybe even foie? Personal taste, sure, but for me it felt a touch off-kilter.
Potato Venison Cured Yolk
Back to winning ways with this next dish of tiny, peeled poached potatoes, topped with a little sour cream, shaved cured egg yolk and slices of cured venison, with a little Fuji spinach for colour and crunch. It reminded me of lunch at my Grandma’s house, the venison similar in texture to good braised ox-tongue and the potatoes vaguely reminiscent of Hartley’s tinned spuds, if that isn’t too unfair! It was a lovely, almost summery picnic-y dish to light up the rainy evening.
Another corker, here, using one of my very favourite fish, plaice. It was juicy and vaguely gelatinous the way truly fresh plaice can be, quickly fried in beef fat and placed among a selection of baby cabbage leaves and shoots, with some braised-seared onion shells that Lucia had fired up on the plancha. Again, the harmony of the dish almost beggared belief. These were unusual flavours, but somehow familiar, and totally compatible.
Hogget Salsify Barley
By now I’d run out of superlatives. Maybe it was the endless waves of gorgeous accompanying wines, but the hogget came at just the right point in the meal, when truly meaty flavours were called for. I’ve had the hogget here before; terrific meat from the sweetly pretty yet tough-as-f**k Herdwick breed. This was a beautiful breast-cut (I think), cooked sous-vide, then caramelised gently on the plancha, before being plated along with salsify cooked three-ways; a creamy purée, caramelised baton and crispy shards. A little sprinkle of pearl barley and a sweet mead-like reduction brought everything across the line perfectly.
Yoghurt Chestnuts Sorrel
We neared the end, and Lucia dialled things down with this wonderful little chestnut-based crisp topped with tart yoghurt and tiny oxalis leaves, bursting with tingly flavour.
Milk Crisps Malt
These malty, milk crisps reminded me of one of my favourite Swiss products, Ovomaltine, a chocolate-y malt powder. In fact, anything malty ticks all the boxes for me. The chrysanthemum shoots added a fresh juiciness to the shattering texture, and looked devastating.
Sea Buckthorn Quince Cocoa
Many chefs balls up chronically with sea buckthorn, making overly bitter and imbalanced puddings, but Rogan’s chefs have been using it for years now, and this dish showcased the aromatic seaside berry perfectly, using a tangy curd alongside a cool, delicate camomile cream. On top of this was placed several cubes of poached quince, jam-packed (excuse the pun) with that perfumed intensity only quince can give, and the whole thing was topped off with a deep, dark galette, which added just a hint of fresh cocoa flavour to the dish without being too dominant.
Artichoke Pear Butterscotch
Right, I’ll admit I can’t remember much about this dish, I’m afraid. The charming sommelier, Neil, had not only provided us with some astonishing wines, most notably the Arneis and the Austrian red, but had rocked up towards the end with almost a full bottle of the most unbelievable white Rioja Reserva from López de Heredia, which no-one else seemed to care for much. You don’t just refuse a generous offer like that, so I guzzled a good few glasses. As such, this final dish went by in a bit of a blur. I remember it being incredibly buttery, the gently poached pear combining well with the butterscotch, but I’ll hold my hands up and say I cannot give a 100% critical opinion on it.
And that was that. Quite the ride. We learned an immense amount over the course of the evening, and it’s always lovely to talk shop with people at the top of their game, too. One of the overriding feelings from the night is that I wish I’d been 20 years younger than the 44 years I’d clocked up that morning. The chance to work at a place like this (or any of the other astonishing progressive kitchens around the world like Noma, Attica, Brae, The French Laundry, Fat Duck, D.O.M., Dabbous etc.) is something chefs my age never really had, and only the true geniuses do this sort of stuff for themselves from the get-go. I always compare these guys to the great painters. Sure, most of us could knock up a half-decent ‘Vase of Flowers’, but not many of us could paint ‘Sunflowers’. Some lead, many follow. And Simon Rogan leads. His cooking is totally new; unique and captivating, evocative and thoughtful. It is rooted in the land, in the old recipes, but at the same time it’s shooting out into space. You must go to L’Enclume to experience this magical food, and if you want to add a touch of theatre (perhaps tutorial is a better word) to your meal, then take a trip across the yard to Aulis. It is, quite simply, brilliant.
And I’m going to buy a plancha.