Not as good as before
On our previous visit, with Simon Rogan himself in the kitchen, we had raved about the experience and understood at once why so much noise was being made in the media, both general and specialist, about the approach and the execution at this stand-out restaurant. Indeed, we were at a loss as to why the big two ratings were anything less than the maximum. But that was then. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that we had booked in on a Monday and the fact that Mark Birchall was not in the kitchen and Sam Ward was having a night off from his front of house duties, but this time our general impression was less positive. We seemed more aware of the uninspiring dining room and this was accentuated by the, to us, strangely unnatural system of having staff bringing out dishes from the kitchen and standing stiffly against one wall with the trays in their hands until someone designated to wait on table was finally in a position to do so. Perhaps it was also to do with the acting wine waiter both refusing to allow my wife to take only some of the choices on the wine flight because of "weights and measures" making it impossible, something we have never heard of nor encountered anywhere else, and showing a clear disinclination to engage in a two-way discussion of the wines. In fairness, we were offered a menu reprinted with the wine flight included, which we gladly accepted, most of the staff were on top of their game, and the service tempo for the dishes, six amuses, six starters and mains and five palate cleansers and desserts, was just right. No wine was served with the initial dishes, so we made do with a perfectly respectable English rosé fizz from Hugh Johnson's favourite Ridge View. We had had some of the introductory courses before in slightly different guises, and while they were all interesting this time we were not struck as much as before by the sweetish oyster pebbles and oyster leaf, nor the squid ink crisp with crunchy chicken skin, the richness cut through by redcurrant gel, nor the smoked eel coated in ham fat and wrapped in crispy onion strings which was not really up to the scotch egg lookalike we remembered. We did enjoy the steamed oxtail dumplings bursting with flavour and contrasted with a chicken liver parfait and crunchy breadcrumbs, the raw scallop with caviar, a deliciously complementary strawberry vinegar and caramelised cauliflower cream, and the melted Tunworth topped with blackened mushroom crunch and surrounded by lamb's tongue chunks. Moving on to the next set of dishes, we commenced with fashionable and remarkably delicate salt-baked turnip wallowing in turnip soup with a set Maran egg yolk, cured pork strip and nasturtium flowers. Then came one of the highlights of the evening, just as it had been two years before, melt-in-the-mouth Cartmel valley venison tartare with a gorgeous boule of fennel both apparently infused in charcoal oil and with a local mustard cream. Things were looking promising again, and sure enough the grilled Scottish langoustine with a parsnip crisp and purée pointing up the perfect shellfish taste with the aid of some slightly salty scurvy grass was sublime. Simon Rogan seems to have a thing about artichokes, and a juicy, flavourful pack of three, Japanese, Jerusalem and globe was enclosed in a wonderful Jerusalem crisp with excellent local goat's cheese and perched on a stout vinegar smear. The following dish was less convincing: the sea bass had been poached in butter and then grilled, which had somehow modified its texture, and it was accompanied by too much smoke - smoked broccoli purée which tasted almost fishy itself, smoked bone marrow which would have great on its own, and slightly smoky mussels which unfortunately dominated the fish as far as we were concerned. The final main dish was Holker milk-fed lamb with onions cooked off in whey, ramson leaves and flowers and potato; the lamb loin and belly was tender enough, but quite honestly if tasted blind it would have been have been difficult to identify as lamb. The desserts were uniformly surprisingly light, just as well after the 12 preceding dishes. Apple tart with gingerbread ice cream was really special, birch sap (akin to maple syrup we were informed) with an oat granola and muscovado caramel tuile had a touch of American diner about it, beetroot in apple jelly with minty tasting apple marigold leaf and home-baked cobnut cake came on a thick, heavy chunk of slate almost too heavy to set down easily on the table, and finally a spectacular sheep's milk ice cream quenelle with granité and chunks of lovely Yorkshire rhubarb, sweet wafers and delightful sorrel leaf and smear. The signature cornets, apple, pear and cream cheese, rounded the evening off, and as we reflected on why our impressions were what they were, we posited the theory that perhaps there are now more restaurants that have caught up with L'enclume, thus making it seem less special.