It’s fair to say that L’Enclume changed the way I looked at restaurants. Eight years ago I’d been to maybe five or six one star restaurants, but L’Enclume would be the first real journey, 3 and a bit hours up the M6 to Cartmel, for a meal. It was, at the time, ‘the place’; a one star restaurant who people were talking up as the UK’s next 3* star, with Simon Rogan owning that year’s Great British Menu, and Mark Birchall on the pass, fresh from a stint at El Cellar Del Can Roca. The meal was great, a four hour study in local terroir. Afterwards I understood the hype of the place completely grounded in the ingredients of its landscape. That year they bagged a second star, a position they have kept since then.
In the elapsed period of time since, almost every restaurant has followed suit to an extent. Who doesn’t have an allotment/garden/roof terrace to grow their own veg/herbs/honey? The fingerprint that Rogan has left on the UK dining scene is permanently stored in the DNA files.
The restaurant has changed a little, I think. If memory serves me correct, there once was a bar area that’s now more seating, and I think the anvil from which they take the name has gone. The corridor where junior front of house would pass food to more senior members is now an open kitchen. The food feels familiar, but maybe that’s because everyone else is now doing it, though it is certainly more refined than I recall. After a broth of something cold and beetrooty, we move on to the only dish still in place; a deep fried bon bon of smoked eel and pork, it’s outer crisp tapioca coating dotted with fermented sweet corn. We do as we are told and dredge it through the lovage purée it nestles upon. It’s meaty and dense and everything I remembered it to be. It’s also the weakest course of the day. A loaf of good bread between the two of us has the options of cultured butter and whipped pork fat topped with crispy pork skin. You know which one I chose. The fat had that depth of slow roasting, like the pale brown wedges of fat on the scratchings from your local butchers.
From herein it gets real good. Courgette is compressed and has the funk of dried shrimp which I’m assured was toasted yeast, covered in a whey sauce with burnt chive and perch roe. It’s skill is in being unable to pinpoint the central point of the dish, with it all coming together to be one vegetal, umami hit. Then various local mushrooms and romaine lettuce; the latter brined in marjoram and roasted in brown butter. A purée of pickled walnuts and a truffle cream. Deep, nutty woodland flavours. More umami. This is the cooking we came for.
They bring a teapot out for the next course. From it is poured a fennel tea onto a course of cod with crispy kale. The genius is in the addition of dried shrimps that bring a hint of darkness to the otherwise politely mannered dish. Texel lamb finishes off the savoury courses. First dainty slices of rare meat with crisped up fat, some practically raw green beans, discs of nasturtiums, and a fig leaf sauce that I drank direct from the bowl. In a bowl behind lay little cubes of potato cooked in lamb fat, leeks, and a miso foam. I think I preferred it to the loin.
On paper a dessert of gooseberry and sweet cicely does nothing for me, though the reality is it outshone the signature ‘anvil’ which followed. It had perfect balance of fresh herbal notes from the custard, with sweetness coming from a beautifully light sponge underneath. The anvil looks great but is lacklustre in comparison. The tried and tested combination of apple and caramel works but lacks the complexity of everything else we eat. We share an all British cheese board from the ever-excellent Cartmel Cheeses around the corner and finish up on a very generous serving of petit fours. The last time I was here they were three ice creams made from vegetables. In that respect they’ve improved greatly.
Service is some of the best around, with Thomas Mercier able to exude more charm from behind his mask than most pre-pandemic General Managers. The pairings, too, are fantastic; interesting and ideally suited to a style of cooking that leans on verdant dishes etched out with subtle acidity. Given that we indulged in the pairing options and the four extra glasses of wine on top, and the cheese and the four glasses of sweet wine, we spent a mortgage payment on lunch. But it was worth it. The legacy of L’Enclume is that it has provided the backbone of cuisine in this country for over a decade. It’s great to see them continue to drive that on.