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L'Enclume: Are you worthy?

Gordo thinks some people have been worshipping a false idol at the Michelin place up in the Lakes

Written by . Published on January 14th 2010.


L'Enclume: Are you worthy?

NOPE, it isn't a perfume, it's a restaurant with rooms situated in the twee little Cumbrian village of Cartmel, famous for its Post Office which, in turn, is famous for its sticky toffee pudding. Maybe the other way round actually. Oh, and a very nice racecourse. The restaurant is named after the French word for an anvil; the place used to be home to a blacksmith.

The visit was a Sunday night, with Gordo staying over. Fifty-nine quid for what turned out to be a very lovely room, worth every penny.

Coming down for dinner, we are shown to a classy lounge area. Purple leather seats, huge flower displays. Whitewashed walls. Slate floors. Dark, unadorned tables. A glass of the house champagne with a couple of freebies thrown in: “fizzing” popcorn, a cheese twist and an olive. Big green feller this olive. He was the King of Olives. He was the Dogs Bollocks of Olives. It was as if Gordo had started to chew a grenade by mistake which went off in four or five different directions. The fizzing popcorn are, well, upmarket prawn crackers, the cheese twist, OK. But that olive.

“Excuse me,” says Gordo to the head waiter, “This olive. How did you do that?”

“Err, do what, Sir?” asks our po-faced pal for the evening.

“How did the chef get so much olive into this olive? It's bloody fantastic,” says Gordo, as usual well over the top when he gets excited. The head waiter looks at Gordo as if he has just escaped a mental asylum. “Well sir, you will have to ask the Spanish who put them in the jars...”

“Oh dear”, thinks Gordo.

The wine waiter is dispatched with an order for a very good Riesling with a bit of age on it, nine years in fact. Gordo's tip for an Old World Riesling is try to get one with a few years on it; they are a different drink to youngsters, they can knock the socks off everything coming out of the New World. The wine list here is spectacular.

Gordo needs to confess at this stage that this is the second visit to L'Enclume. It has a great reputation among critics like little Coren who declared, in his short trousered way, that he wasn't entirely sure whether or not he had just had the best meal of his life after dining here. A Michelin star has been awarded and the chef, Simon Rogan, gets hero worshipped by his staff and customers alike. Mr Rogan's cooking does away with stuff like 'heavy meat stocks'. He uses stuff out of the garden relying on herbs and flowers, as little dairy as possible.

Gordo remembers talk like this from the seventies and early eighties.

On that first visit he was dining on his companion's wallet, so he just sat back, drank a few too many gin and tonics and ate a dinner of umpteen small portions, enjoying himself enormously whilst, frankly, not really noticing the food too much. There were 14 mouthfuls, he does remember that, with about four flavours per mouthful, which confused him. That makes 56 flavours. Blimey. Not good for wine matching. You are probably best to drink champagne all the way through.

This time, with Cat Johnson riding shotgun, he is determined to see what all the fuss is about. The dining room is working a bit too hard at being contemporary, the slate grey floor and white walls go on forever in a space not much bigger than a small pub. It gives the feel of sitting in a small art gallery, with the guests on show. The dark tables don't lift the spirits. The chairs are hard and mean.

The £70 menu has been ordered. That makes the meal, with the wine, around £200 for two. There are a lot of courses.

First up, Martini Fizz. Gordo's notes say “great showmanship with a soda syphon full of white stuff poured on top of red stuff”. A fruit from New Zealand by all accounts. It got bored in the plane on the way over and never woke up to tell us what it tasted of. All this in a martini glass. Absolutely fabulous yoghurt-flavoured tuile came on the side: A big tin of these please chef.

Next, a hot and sour soup. Very good, but I have had better both in my own kitchen and in town. The USP is a syringe full off eggy stuff, squirted into the hot soup at the table, which feels like an experiment at school. As if by magic it turns into noodles. This is silly. It's Mr Rogan's iPod.

Pork rissoles on a bed of sweetcorn and lovage are exceptional, with the sweetcorn purée being a star worthy of a mop up with bread. But there isn't any. And Gordo has the distinct feeling that if he asks for some, he will be struck down by a bolt of lightning for being coarse.

“Razor Role Reversal” is chopped razor clams in an eggshell with chestnuts, while some kind of minced chicken rides the razor clam shell itself. A simple small bowl full of this, maybe as a risotto, would have made it dish of the year. But therein lies the problem with this meal. You just can't sit back and relax over the fantastic Riesling, look your missus in the eye and thank God for your luck. Because this is all about worshipping gods. False ones to Gordo's mind.

The next dish is monkfish with squid ink. It is horrible. The nose on it is horrible. The taste of it is nasty, whilst the texture is like stiff jelly. Gordo is told that this is “Simon's little quirk, he insists on keeping it on”. Which translates to, “Simon doesn't like being told that one of his dishes is crap and insists on making us all suffer him”. It's “Simon this and Simon that” with all the staff. It's as if we have landed in a commune in Guatemala. It's all a bit weird.

Then, Lancashire hotpot. How in God's name can this be described? Smallish bowl. A thick, near syrup-like stock, reeking of lamb. (What was all that “no heavy meat stocks”? ed.) Floating weirdly inside the “broth” are four or five different gob-stopper sized balls of a liquid emulsion, each one tasting of a different constituent of the hotpot, indeed one of them was like drinking liquid potato. This is Mr Rogan's masterpiece. Quite fantastic. You have to be there.

Next, veal. A small cut, probably the fillet, completely flavourless. Boring.

Somewhere in among this lot is a Shredded Wheat filled with hot foie gras. It doesn't work.

Reader, there were three or four other courses, but I am starting to bore myself, let alone you lot.

The two puddings hit the spot, mind you.

This food is about worship. It is about being on your toes, paying attention. It isn't about relaxation. There simply is no point in the fantastic wine list here, you cannot match your wine to 54 separate flavours, it's a schizophrenic nightmare. This style of food will go out of fashion quickly. The coming storm of a recession will find chefs having to go back and prove their skills with far less exotic ingredients.

Not only that, this chef has made the mistake of thinking that people come here to get on their knees before him. No we don't, it's about me and my fellow diners talking, laughing, having fun. With great food that complements conversation, that doesn't get in the way of marriage proposals or celebrations of victories in life's journey. In this restaurant you feel like you are going to have to fill in a chemistry A level paper at any moment.

The odd thing is that I am going to recommend that you do go. It is an experience not to be missed. You may well love it to death. On the other hand you may come away highly irritated by a chef who is wasting his brilliance on his ego.

The service is impeccable, although don't go taking photos as you will get a bollocking off a very dour head waiter who has a pepper mill stuck up his bottom. Cat and Gordo secretly liked him, mind you. Gordo recounted this to his pal Fergus Henderson, the chef's chef. “Bloody right he was too, you are such a silly fellow at times Gordo.”

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes.

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AnonymousNovember 4th 2008.

I agree, that Lancashire hotpot looks vile.

BrinmeisterNovember 4th 2008.

That lamb hot pot looks like a turtle with a stomach upset just gave birth. Who's the fit bird? I'd have a go...

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