Lake District

L’Enclume, Cartmel

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.

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside

We start dinner as we usually do; me knocking back a negroni like I’ve never seen one before, my more delicate other half nursing the most expensive cocktail on the list, this time a £19 mixture of champagne, aquavit, and bitters. From our centrally positioned table we can hear Chef Patron, James Cross, speak to the table next to the pass. “Any chef who tells you he has invented something is a liar. We are all borrowing from something. Most of my techniques are 700 years old”. I like the man already.

Four hours later we leave, stumbling back to the hotel discussing one of the best meals we’ve eaten in recent years. Lake Road Kitchen might look unassuming from the outside, but this is one of the best in the UK. The techniques of pickling and fermentation and cooking over flames may well be as old as time, but here they have taken them and stamped their identity on them to produce dish after dish of winners, each bringing a distinct narrative to the central story. The thin sheets of ham with gossamer ribbons of fat have little to do with the course of barbecue quail tacos other than they are both delicious. I could eat a hundred of those tacos. In between these comes possibly the UK’s best bread with an almost cheese-like butter. Again, another hundred portions, please.

Then prawn toast happens. Or prawn Kiev, whichever way you want to view the starting point of the dish. Should we make it to the end of 2020 – which is doubtful at present – I’ll look back and see this as possibly the year’s best plate of food: plump prawns bound in a mousseline of the same shellfish, itself set within a casing and a pocket of garlic butter. Pick up slice, dunk into tomato ketchup. Regret nothing.

The langoustine in a light tomato broth which follows lacks the same punch and is more a study of floral notes and gentle spice, before a beef and onion broth that works as a bread-less French Onion soup with the gratings of Beaufort that mingle and add much needed layers of fattiness. A risotto of pine nuts rich in saffron – and slightly too high in salt – is funky, umami driven, with raw slices of button mushroom and slithers of 7yr old parmesan. We tilt the bowl to get the last out of it.

Gigha Halibut cooked to a gelatinous texture somehow, served with a beurre blanc sauce that pops with trout roe salinity, is the only time the food doesn’t feel original. I’ve had similar dishes at several restaurants in the last twelve months. Then pig, specifically an entire chop of Saddleback for two. First as a singular slice of glistening meat and fat, with carrots both puréed and pickled, pickled onions, and a sauce studded with pickled ransom capers. Then a second plate this bearing the rest of the chop, complete with bone. Some of the best pork I can remember eating; the meat glaze on the outside almost sweet, bathed in bright acidity throughout. Pretty much perfect work.

We finish on three dishes which take us seamlessly from savoury to sweet. Herbaceous, almost hay-like, woodruff ice cream is followed by a blackberry marshmallow ice cream and cassis with the most incredible viscosity that will live long in the memory. Final course is baked cheesecake reminiscent of La Vina, light and creamy in texture, with apricot compote and ice cream. It’s fun and original, a rarity in fine dining.

Service is great and the wine pairings – almost all leaning towards the acidity of alpine regions – is excellent value at £70. It’s a meal that stands out for it’s singular vision; James Cross’s CV starts at Simpson’s, before moving on to a 3* in Rome and a lengthy period at Noma, yet none of these appear on the dishes in an obvious form. Lake Road utilises the best of its Lake District larder and turns it into something unique which has it’s own identity. It’s without question one of the best restaurants in the land.