Some like it haute
Remote but remarkable, Simon Rogan’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Enclume is Cumbria’s answer to El Bulli, only better
THERE’S NOT MUCH of Cartmel, but what there is looks so lovely that it seems almost ersatz. At one end sits a tiny square, with ancient pubs and a shop renowned for its sticky toffee pudding.
From here, the medieval main street crosses a stream — complete with a photogenic regatta of ducklings — and runs along to the huge stained-glass windows of the 800-year-old Priory church. Then there is a small, contemporary British restaurant called L’Enclume, with its locally foraged ingredients and internationally influential, epic tasting menus, all bathed in the soft alluring light of its Michelin stars.
Back at the start of the century, with much of Cumbria devastated by foot-and-mouth, this was a darker place. When born and bred southerner Simon Rogan moved here and opened L’Enclume in 2002 it was the salvo for a new way of approaching ingredients and cooking.
Inspired by rave reviews for his high-science cooking, compared to that of molecular masters Ferran Adrià and Pierre Gagnaire, Londoners began making the five-hour journey for dinner even before he’d opened rooms for them to stay in.
Then he set up a second, more casual restaurant, Rogan & Co, and last year he added to the fold a lovely, ungentrified boozer, the Pig & Whistle, with plans to create the perfect pub lunch. (‘Because we’re doing it, people expect so much more than just a pie,’ he says.) Increasingly, Cartmel is defined by one man’s vision and art.
‘When we first came here, there was a real attitude of distrust,’ says Rogan. ‘People wanted to know, “Who is this southerner coming up here, doing this strange food?” But over time that changed.
We’ve brought a lot of people to the village, lots of new businesses are opening up, and we shout from the rooftops about how lucky we are to be in such a beautiful place. I love it up here. I love going to Coniston and looking down at the water at what looks like a beach, and I love the desolation and isolation of Wastwater at the bottom of the highest peak of Scafell Pike.’
Today Cumbria, tomorrow…
At a first glance around its conservatory, L’Enclume is handsome but hardly revelatory, El Bulli rustic rather than Ducasse grand. Waiters are jovial and diners wear jeans. ‘The style of service fits the food,’ says Rogan. ‘It’s natural, happy-go-lucky and a bit wild. It’s about having fun. Take pictures, kick your shoes off if you want.’
This may be an unprepossessing space, but it’s a place of pilgrimage — a must-visit for Sunday supplement food porn addicts, drawn by its two Michelin stars and its 10/10 score in the Good Food Guide (only the Fat Duck has the same) — and a kind of foodie Lourdes for long-married couples looking to rekindle the long-lost art of supper conversation.
There’s a lot to talk about. Rogan and the town are on a roll. A summer refurb at L’Enclume has just added much needed space for the kitchen and front of house.
The French in Manchester, a visually soigné sibling to Rogan’s Cumbrian mothership, opened in March and has become the talk of the town. It sits in stark contrast to the two-year London pop-up Roganic, which was not so much Scandi austere as ascetic in style. The French has been booked solid every night and looks like a dead cert to give the city its first Michelin star since Paul Kitching closed Juniper and decamped to Edinburgh in 2008.
Then there’s the nearby Rogan-owned farm, which grows much of the specialist greens that are a staple of his menus, from apple marigold cress to borage. ‘Visiting is a real experience,’ he says. ‘We’re building a room for schools, and we hope to have barbecues there.’
There are, increasingly, echoes of Napa in Cartmel. Both are rural idylls that have mined a rich vein of gold in the form of fine dining — but Rogan has an arguably more contemporary approach.
He’s developed a distinctive signature: small, light, surprising dishes that do eccentric things with English herbs and vegetables — celeriac, ramsons, sea buckthorn, sorrel, stonecrop.
Possibly the most memorable dish on the tasting menu is raw venison with charcoal oil — basically the best steak tartare that will ever be. Tellingly, coal oil is appearing on menus in London, along with second, third and fourth-rate versions of Rogan-style plates.
At the same time, Rogan has pared back the science. His heart is in his farm, and the alchemy now comes from the combination of just a few fresh ingredients, rather than spherification kits and culinary jazz hands. The experience is better, more delicious. It’s a very modern way of eating.
‘I became bamboozled by technique and foreign ingredients for a while,’ Rogan admits. ‘A few people I trusted told me to concentrate on my strong points. So I got back to basics. We went through the science phase, and kept the bits that worked. Spherification essentially dilutes flavour. Now I just want to take the most perfect carrot ever, and barbecue it. Five years ago we would have deconstructed and reconstructed it four different ways. We still have the latest kit in the kitchen, but we use it in a different way.’
With Heston Blumenthal’s credibility adrift somewhere between his hot cross buns for Waitrose and his quest to make the world’s largest Kit Kat on TV, Rogan has become the most influential, and arguably the best, chef in the UK.
He wants a third Michelin star for L’Enclume (‘Michelin only became important to me when we got our second star — now I want another one’). He also wants a star in Manchester — where a second restaurant, Mr Cooper’s, is opening in September — and to re-establish an outpost for his team in London. But it all comes back to Cartmel.
‘Absolutely everything we do is about making L’Enclume as good as we can,’ says Rogan. ‘The town is a magical place and it’s a very significant part of who and what we are.’
‘There were so many highlights that all I can do is pick out a few. Kohlrabi dumplings in a monkswell cheddar sauce, garnished with fresh peas and apple marigold, was a stunner of subtle umami flavours.’
John Lanchester on L’Enclume
‘His dishes work on levels of sophistication involving temperature, texture and taste that few other chefs, British or otherwise, begin to understand, let alone approach.’
Matthew Fort on The Fat Duck
The Good Food Guide
‘L’Enclume is mind- blowing. It’s a world-class destination in harmony with its local community, serving food that is hard- wired to the Cumbrian soil. Rogan creates miracles from nature; he cooks what the land can provide — nothing more, nothing less.’
Elizabeth Carter on L’Enclume
‘What do we want a restaurant to do? Feed us well, memorably, courteously, and offer value for money. The Fat Duck does all that — and much more. It’s great fun and it all adds up to a dining experience of the most wondrous enchantment.’
Elizabeth Carter on The Fat Duck
The Daily Telegraph
‘I kick off with lasagne of langoustine, but calling it “lasagne” is like calling Fortnum & Mason a corner shop. Never have I tasted pasta so delicate. If you ate this every day while marooned on a desert island, you wouldn’t want rescuing.’
Jasper Gerard on The Fat Duck
In other hands, the technical complexity and intricate melding of ingredients would itself land a restaurant in Pseuds Corner. In Rogan’s, and those of his chefs, it provided the clearest expression of culinary genius I’ve experienced since the Fat Duck.’
Matthew Norman on L’Enclume