Thursday, 20 March 2014

Istanbul Restaurant, Lytham

Thirty years ago this year I was lucky enough to spend the better part of a month in Turkey, visiting Istanbul, the Aegean coast, the Mediterranean coast (where I saw lots of hotel foundations going in, foreshadowing the  package-holiday-ification of those miles of beautiful, empty beaches), the central Anatolian plateau and the frankly weird Cappadocia.  All beautiful in their own way, and everywhere characterised by an almost overwhelming friendliness.

Apologies for the quality of these photographs from 1984: they are photographs of prints, the original Kodachrome slides having long ago gone astray.
Istanbul in 1984

Fisherman selling his catch, Istanbul, 1984
Particularly phallic geology in Cappadocia
Brush seller, somewhere in Turkey, 1984

It was fabulous, and my first introduction to the shared food culture of the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. Restaurants in Istanbul and Konya, where the menu consisted of going into the kitchen and looking in various pots and fridges; charcoal-grilled döner kebab from a street stall outside the Grand Bazaar, grilled meats, grilled fish, fried fish from a boat bobbing in the Golden Horn, still the best ever börek, lahmacun from street traders, and the list could go on and on.

Sadly, in the north west, there are few opportunities, beyond the many dodgy kebab shops, for this genre of cooking.  The excellent Lebanese evening with Chateau Musar at the Parkers Arms was a noble exception, and I wish we could persuade Stosie Madi, chef-patron of the Parkers Arms to allow this part of her heritage to show through more on her menus.

When I heard that a Turkish restaurant had opened in Lytham, in the building formerly occupied by the much missed Hastings, I realised that it couldn't be a dodgy kebab operation, given the size of the building, and a quick google found the website for Istanbul Lytham, which, despite a certain charming amateurishness, suggested there was some ambition here.

Istanbul Lytham has had the benefit of moving straight into an already fully-equipped restaurant, and have done really very little indeed to the old Hastings, even down to some of the photographs on the walls remaining.  There has been a light refurb, recovering some seating with Turkish fabrics, and adding a shisha pipe, but that's about it.  Certainly at lunchtime when I've been, what used to be the bar area is used for dining, with the large split level dining areas to the rear remaining unused.  Certainly on the numbers that have been eating there when I've been for lunch, it's difficult to understand how they can support such a large property.  I hope they do, as it's something fresh, different and really pretty good, and a welcome addition to Lancashire's Fylde Coast.

The menu has a reasonably extensive selection of meze, apparently all made in-house apart from the stuffed vine leaves (yaprak dolma).  A nifty bit of up-selling from the waiter pointing out the six meze for £18 offer was too much for a pair of old bargain hunters to resist.  I enjoyed these much more than what I'm about to write seems to make out.  They're not going to win any best meze competitions, but that's also what I remember about meals in Turkey 30 years ago: it's all pretty good and seems better at the time, but is ultimately fairly simple and falls below the standard of what we're led to believe was the greatness of Ottoman cuisine.
Falafel (foreground), Mantar Dolma, Humus Kavurma, bread, Muska Börek (background left to right)
The falafel weren't the best I've had, and were oddly dark., but they also weren't the worst.  Curiously, the dark colour didn't seem to reflect them having been overcooked.  Mantar Dolma were mushrooms stuffed with a lightly garlic-flavoured chicken mousse then breaded and deep-fried.  For me the breading and deep frying didn't add much worthwhile.
Humus Kavurma was splendid: a good humus topped with a lamb casserole.  The börek were the best of this little selection: cheese, pine kernels and herbs in a light pastry.
Also very good was the sucuk, a spicy Turkish sausage (below): noticeably different to any of the readily available chorizo sausages at least, and with a nice, gentle, well-balanced spicing.
I also find the bread very good.  It's a sort of leaven seeded not flat flatbread.
Chicken börek
Oddly, the chicken börek was quite different to the cheese börek, and seemed much more spring roll like. Good filling, but I'd have preferred a slightly lighter pastry.

This next dish was supposed to patlican salata (aubergine salad), which I expected to be more like baba ghanoush than the cold imam bayildi it appeared to be.  Given that there is another meze dish which is cold imam bayildi, I wonder whether this was the waiter's error.  Once I'd got over the disappointment, it was rather good.
Patlican salata (or is it imam bayildi?)
Some simple calamari were really excellent: light and crunchy on the outside, and beautifully tender squid.

Moving on to main courses, the grills were the star for me, but I think it's such a shame that they don't grill over real charcoal.
Adana kofte
The Adana kofte was terrific: nicely cooked and very pleasantly spiced.  The rice with vermicelli, is worth a mention too.

Iskender mixed grill
The Iskender mixed grill (lamb fillet, chicken thigh and lamb kofte) was also very good, the chicken thigh particularly so having clearly been well marinaded before grilling.  It was served with
yoghurt, tomato sauce and minted brown butter, which I believe is where the name Iskender comes from.

Having had what seemed to be cold Imam Bayildi as one of the meze, the larger main course Imam Bayildi made us regret the duplication, though not when it came to eating it.  The main course version is served hot, with more of that rather good rice.  There's really nothing you can do to make it look pretty on the plate though.
Imam Bayildi
The menus skip over the notion of dessert, which is odd as they produced some rather good baklava. The waiter said they make it themselves, which struck me as a bit strange, given the effort involved and the fact they don't really sell it.  But it was noticeably fresher tasting, and a little less sweet than most of what I've found commercially available in the north west.
Turkish coffee is available, and pretty good, but again they somewhat curiously don't make any song and dance about it.  When we returned for a second visit, they had even run out of Raki.  The wine list is a little peremptory and unfortunately only has four Turkish wines - two whites, two reds.  They could do better than that, I think.  Though I guess more Turkish wines would need selling.  Service is friendly and welcoming, but tends to the "excellent choice" or "that's my favourite" response to everything you order.

Reading through what I've written about Istanbul Restaurant in Lytham, it sounds like I've a bit of a downer on it.  It's not perfect, but I've enjoyed my two visits so far very much, it's something a bit different on the Fylde coast, and am sure I'll be going back soon.

Istanbul on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Ten years of lunches at L'Enclume, Cartmel

I've realised that it's been a while since I posted anything here about my meals at L'Enclume.  My past few visits to L'Enclume have provided some exceptional food: it is rather difficult to believe, but my latest meal showed a marked improvement on other meals there in 2013.

I was last at L'Enclume in August 2013, and since then they had been crowned the best restaurant in the United Kingdom by the Good Food Guide and it had been announced that Simon Rogan would be taking on the restaurant in Claridges in London.  Nothing ever stands still at L'Enclume, even less so for Simon Rogan himself.
On this visit, in the middle of November 2013, the changing seasons meant much of the menu had changed: some dishes were subtly different; some were entirely new.

This, and a brief chat with Simon Rogan about his plans for the Claridges restaurant, got me thinking on the way home about all the changes that I've seen at L'Enclume, and, after the quickest bit of maths, I realised that I'd been going to L'Enclume for ten years, my first visit being just a few months after it opened in 2002.

It would be far too long a post to run through all the changes that those ten years have seen, but before going on to my November 2013 meal, I thought it might be interesting to revisit my first report of L'Enclume, written in June 2003.  There are no photographs from back then, which partly explains the vagueness of some of the descriptions.

L'Enclume was undoubtedly the north of England opening in 2003.

Getting the non-food stuff out of the way first: the setting is quite splendid. A converted smithy (hence the name: French for "anvil"), with cooling whitewashed walls. White table cloths, good cutlery, good glasses.  Even the lighting is good.  A conservatory for aperitifs that's not too conservatory-like and a lovely garden with a stream running past, all nestling below Cartmel Priory.  On a warm day, it's very difficult not to linger - even to the point of having a cafetière rather than an espresso after the meal.  Cartmel is not exactly a busy metropolis, but L'Enclume and particularly its garden provide a complete oasis from the outside world.

I have been several times now, and the standard of cooking has been consistently high and innovative. First impressions of the menu are of a Blumenthal/Fat Duck type striving for effect. But while Blumenthal is more about technique, Enclume is about tastes and textures with Marc Veyrat overtones, underpinned by a strong classical technique. Particularly looking at the menu, but also at the food when it arrives on the plate, it is easy to get the impression that there is a striving for effect. That may well be - and I suppose in the crowded market of the Lake District you perhaps need a USP - but the key is that it all works, and often better than it sounds. Menu descriptions tend to the listing every ingredient in a dish variety, which can make you slightly nervous when it comes to something like a "calamint, bark and blossom infusion", but the weirder sounding stuff stands out as weird far more on the page than it does on the plate. Unusually for a Lake District kitchen, there is no sticky toffee pudding (thank goodness) - anyone with withdrawal symptoms can pick up the famous (but not that good, in my view), Rick Stein Food Hero version, from the village shop just down the road.

There are, I believe, 5 menus - a TDH at about £20, the à la carte, and three "Taste and Texture" menus: a seven course "Introduction" at £50; a twelve course "Intermediate" at £75 and a 19 course "gourmand" menu at £95. With the carte at least come the freebie appetisers and pre-desserts.  The wine list is very well chosen.

I have been for lunch on several occasions, and so far always opted for the carte. The first time was a standard 3 course affair that I now can't remember in its entirety. A dish of turbot and oxtail gayette was quite superb: not at all surf and turf - all elements were perfectly executed and worked harmoniously. This was followed by a Monkfish 'cinq saveurs' that I can't remember much more about than a spicy crust and enjoying enormously. My companion's starter was a "foie gras hors d'oeuvres", comprising I think 4 little foie gras goodies - terrine, pate, fried and a Marc Meneau style cromesqui. Personally I think the foie gras cromesquis, which seem to be becoming more common, are better as a tie-ruining (for the uninitiated) appetiser, than as a substantive element of a dish.

One visit was on 5th June 2003 - a gorgeous boiling hot day, with the sun beating down, while the ducks played amorously in the stream. Indoors was cool, pleasant and welcoming. So I sat outside in the sun (!) with a glass of very good citron pressé (which had to be made in the kitchen for some reason) while I read the menu. Rather than a starter-main course meal, I chose three starters, and asked for a glass of appropriate wine with each. It is a mark of the high standard of the staff that they are unphased by such requests (and indeed hadn't responded "yer wot?" to the request for a citron pressé).

Things got underway with a slab of slate bearing three "freebie" appetisers:
A shot glass of superb asparagus velouté - quite excellent - beautiful colour and an excellent intense flavour.
Dauphinoise potato with leek - not so good. A bit underseasoned and undercooked. I like the cream for my dauphinoise to have been cooked for a while. This was like a warm vichyssoise before processing. Which now I write that, I realise was exactly what it was! The description was wrong, maybe.
Last of the appetisers was a red pepper bavarois. Again in a shot glass. A quite exquisite texture and hugely intense flavour. Superb.

Excellent bread, including a saffron bread, and a sea lettuce bread among about 5 varieties with Echiré butter.

My first course was a sweet woodruff jelly, pickled cucumber, flaky crab, oscietra caviar and "nearly-caramelised baby squid." Each element was superb in itself.  Sweet woodruff has a refreshing taste all of its own (and is representative of a number of less common herbs that appear on the menu - maybe chef Simon Rogan is a bit of a forager?), the pickled cucumber was 'spaghetti'd' and slightly sweet, slightly sour , the flaky crab was very fresh tasting white meat that had somehow been fluffed up (you might even imagine that each 'grain' had been separated by hand) and then loosely formed into a neat quenelle. The squid was excellent - tiniest squid imaginable and, as the tin said, nearly caramelised. Everything on its own was quite perfect, but the combination of tastes and textures was simply exquisite. The only drawback might have been that the third of a coffee spoon of oscietra was not quite enough to stretch beyond more than two mouthful combinations (if you see what I mean). They selected a glass of Mosel Riesling Kabinett to go with this, which it did - rather well in fact.

Next up was a nage of langoustines with green vegetables (i.e. peas, beans and broad beans) cooked in a calamint, bark and blossom infusion. Quite exceptional langoustines, perfectly cooked. Stunning colours and flavours on the plate. Presentation of all the dishes is very good indeed. This was matched well by a glass of good, if rather warm muscadet.

Third came Lozenges of quail, roast ramsons (bit late in the season for ramsons, isn't it?), bergamot salsa and a smoked papaya vinaigrette. Another splendid dish, again each component well done (though I'd not have guessed at smoked papaya in the sauce if it had been served blind) and the whole managing to be greater than the sum of its parts. I find it very interesting the way that all components of a dish are excellent in themselves, and thoroughly enjoyable on their own, but when you put it all together on the fork it takes it to a different level. There is a very assured hand at work in the kitchen. The quail breasts were perfectly cooked and served on the finest of finely chopped brunoise of apple and carrot - certainly no more than a sixteenth of an inch perfect cubes. I have to pity the poor person who'd chopped them.
A glass of surprisingly good chardonnay from the Veneto came with this, again a touch on the warm side unfortunately.

Then there were the pre-desserts, which I have forgotten entirely, though I'm pretty sure shot glasses came into it again.

Dessert proper was an upside down coconut soufflé with roast pineapple and a mango chutney ice-cream. The plate arrived, bereft of any sign of souffle, but with a palm tree painstakingly constructed of tuile biscuits glued together with caramel and a slice of highly spiced roast pineapple topped with the equally heavily flavoured mango chutney ice-cream. Seconds later a teacup containing a souffle appeared and was ceremoniously up-ended onto my plate. Well, yes, it was now an upside down souffle. The coconut souffle itself was - I'm sorry, I'm going to use the e word again - excellent. No trace of egginess, no trace of the dreaded dessicated coconut, but just an elegantly perfumed textbook souffle. Excellent. I have to say I found the mango chutney ice cream a little on the overpowering side.

As if you might not have had enough puddings, coffee comes with a shot glass of very good, spongeless tiramisu and a chocolate filled doughnut.

The only weak points in the whole meal were the over-flavoured mango chutney ice-cream and the chocolate donut petit four, which was a little chewy.

Everything else was characterised by the innovation of the combinations, the use of unfamiliar ingredients and the intense, very clean flavours.

I have no reservation in saying that this should get a very very high 8/10.  Properly chilled wines by the glass, a little more flavour and seasoning in the vichyssoise cum dauphinoise pre-starter and a milder mango chutney ice-cream would make it an easy 9/10.

I really hope L'Enclume proves a commercial success, as it is a much needed injection of style and skill into the North Lancashire dining scene. (Any Lancastrian will tell you that Cartmel really is part of Lancashire, whatever the 1974 boundary changes said ...)

It's interesting to reflect on what's changed, and what hasn't.  Behind the scenes, the kitchen has just this year been extended and completely refitted. and Simon Rogan has taken over what was the adjacent post office and turned it into his development kitchen, Aulis (itself still be refitted at the time of this visit). The garden has reduced in size considerably, yielding to an extended conservatory that has more than doubled in size and now has the best tables in the dining room.  It's still one of my favourite dining rooms in the country, and there's still the same relaxed feel, helped by well-orchestrated staff who make everyone feel at ease.

The big change has been in the food.  Rogan has, after a few not-quite-false starts in the earlier years, now found his own style and niche.  That's not to say there aren't occasional influences from elsewhere.  Some might even be unconscious.  As is evident from my 2003 report, there were already marks of the now well-known Rogan style from the beginning, with things like calamint and sweet woodruff taking the limelight.  What is dramatically different in the 2003 report, however, is the presence of things like foie gras, oscietra caviar, papaya, pineapple, mango etc.  Now all the ingredients at L'Enclume come from the British Isles, and indeed increasingly the majority come from Simon Rogan's own farm down the road from Cartmel, which supplies all his restaurants and continues to expand to meet that demand.

The menu structure is much simpler now: in the evening there is just one menu, with 20-22 courses, while at lunchtime there is the same tasting menu, plus a shorter 6-course menu.  The prices make an interesting comparison. In 2003, a 7-course menu was £50, while today the 6-course lunch is just £45.  In 2003 the 19 course "gourmand" menu was £95: today the main tasting menu is £120 for 22 courses. (Though it's worth noting that "courses" is a generous description, for today it includes a number of small appetiser tastes.)  Looking at an online inflation calculator, I see that 2003's £95 would today be £127.22.  So (please look away now, Simon Rogan or anyone employed by him!), if anything, the price of the main tasting menu has gone down.  And they have two Michelin stars and have been accorded the title of best restaurant in the UK now.  £120 is a hell of a lot of money for lunch, but I would argue that it is impossible to argue that it's not great value.

You can spend £53 to watch Manchester United play for 90 minutes. The £120 menu at L'Enclume will take four hours of your time, and you get fed too.  For £125 you can get to drive a Ferrari for four laps round a race circuit.  At the time of writing, it could cost you between £198 and £230 to get a seat at the Royal Opera House to watch Parsifal on 2nd December 2013.  If I needed to get a train to London tomorrow, it'd cost me nearly £160 to be there by 10am.

So, what do you get for £120 at L'Enclume?  Beyond enjoying the experience and the setting and using their heating and lighting for four hours, that is.

First to come out of the kitchen, after they've checked for allergies, dislikes or just plain faddishness, are a series of small one-bite appetisers/canapés or whatever you want to call them, each of which counts as a course in the total 22.

There are some standard, unchanging items on the menu now, Rogan signatures I suppose, and the first thing to come out is one of them: oyster pebbles.
Oyster pebble with oyster leaf
The oyster pebble is a small meringue, coloured and flavoured with squid ink, filled with an oyster cream and a fine dice of apple.
Interior of the oyster pebble
Starting what was to become a trend throughout this meal, the oyster pebble was notably superior to the last couple of times I've had it: the meringue was much lighter and more melt-in-the-mouth.  I continue to be amazed by the oyster leaf that always accompanies the pebble and its pure oyster flavours.

Next came a new dish for me, described on the menu as radish and blackberry, but between the menu being printed for me and it coming out of the kitchen, the blackberry element had turned into a horseradish cream.
Radish and horseradish
This is a single radish, which has been carefully hollowed out and filled with a light, well-balanced horseradish cream.  A combination I don't recall having come across before, but which worked very well.  I couldn't but help thinking this must be superior to whatever form the blackberry filling might have taken.

The next three dishes came together.

In the foreground is another fixture on L'Enclume's menu, the delicious little nugget of smoked eel, this time served on a little ham fat.
Interior of the smoked eel with ham fat
I've also now had the left rear thing (in the plant pot) a few times: it looks like a black truffle, but is in fact Ragstone goats cheese that has been rolled in a sort of malt soil. Last time I had this, I thought it needed further work, as it was a bit claggy in the mouth, just like a piece of cold young goats cheese.  Whether it was simply a better log of Ragstone they'd used this time, or the new addition of a touch of tarragon, or some other intervention, I'm not sure, but this was a huge improvement this time thanks to be a lot lighter, although I don't believe the flavour was much different.

The final element of this trio was a riff on a common combination of flavours at L'Enclume: Jerusalem artichoke and truffle.
Artichoke with truffle
This was a delicious couple of mouthfuls: a thin crisp of jerusalem artichoke topped with what seemed to be a black truffle paste, then some cubes of cooked artichoke which seemed to be bound with puréed artichoke, then all topped with grated (English, of course) truffle.

We're still in the appetiser section of the menu, but now the portions start becoming slightly larger.  The next dish was another new one for me: a truly beautiful looking scallop tartare, presented in a queenie shell, with English caviar (that's caviar produced in England, not a euphemism for anything else) and some little dots of a purée of a sea herb, whose name I've forgotten. I thought this was a fabulous dish.
Raw scallop, caviar
Pigeon with offal ragout was another new dish for me, though I've had the bolognese ragu-like bird offal before.  Big punchy flavours from the ragu, some kale (I think) and a perfectly cooked pigeon breast with some good (presumably) pigeon jus.  It's worth saying that all the stock-based meat jus sauces at L'Enclume are terrific.
Pigeon with offal ragout
And then finally to round off the appetisers, the signature porcelain sack which has contained something different every time I've been.  This time it had all the flavours of potted shrimps on toast.  Some sweet Morecambe Bay shrimps in the bottom, some lettuce and brown bread emulsions, topped with a powdered mace butter and a couple of tiny lettuce leaves.  These sacks never photograph well, as all the goodness is hidden.
Shrimp, brown bread and lettuce
Once you have got through the appetisers, the bread comes: now very much fixed into three standard types: a sort of soft pumpernickel-like roll, a wholemeal made with local ale, and an unbleached white with the merest hint of onion.  New this time was that the bread came not merely with the usual excellent butter, but also with lard whipped with crisp ham and apple.  Or as the granddaughter said to the grandmother on a neighbouring table "it's dripping, gran."
Dripping and butter

The next dish on the menu was one I've had so many times that I set the kitchen the challenge of coming up with something different.  The challenge was readily accepted, and I was told the replacement dish would appear later in the meal.  So this time, there was no cod 'yolk' with watercress, salt and vinegar, but here it is from a previous meal:
The cod yolk is a cod mousse encased in a gel coloured with saffron, a sort of garlic mayonnaise emulsion and puffed rice flavoured with salt and vinegar powder.  Put it all together, and the flavour is not a million miles from fish and chips.

So, not having that, I moved straight onto the fabulous Westcombe dumplings: light, ultra smooth dumplings made from Westcombe Cheddar cheese,  this time served with an almost beefy beetroot broth, some thinly sliced raw beetroot and a few leaves.
Beetroot broth, westcombe dumpling and shoots
The venison tartare that followed is another dish that has become a standard on the menu, and a Rogan signature, to the extent that it also features on the menu at his outpost in The French in Manchester's Midland Hotel, though there it is for some reason made with beef, not venison.
Valley venison, charcoal oil, mustard and fennel
The venison is marinated in just a touch of the coal oil, giving this raw meat the flavour of having been barbecued.  The yellow blobs are a mustard mayonnaise; the leaves are baby fennel shoots, and the candied globes contain are a bit like liqueur chocolates, without the chocolate and a liquid fennel interior.  The whole thing sits on a sort of caper jam, that's really delicious.  Another dish where, picking up what I first wrote in 2003, the individual components were all superb, but when you put them all in your mouth together it genuinely becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Next came another dish where the content changes regularly, but is always driven by the crockery, which necessitates an "en deux services" approach, with the same core ingredient done in two different ways.  What comes to the table is a bit like a handle-less mug with a lid.  On the lid is a wafer/crisp of some description topped with some of the core ingredient in a raw form and other stuff. The waiting staff explain this, and tell you'll they'll return to explain the second part of the dish when you've eaten part one.  As you can imagine, rather like the earlier sack, photographing the inside of a mug with stuff layered up inside it, is never going to be very successful, so apologies for that.

Langoustine, parsnip, black pudding, hazelnut and cured yolk
On this occasion, the first stage was a thin wafer topped with a tartare of langoustine that seemed to have been lightly bound by a mayonnaise or something a little creamy, some hazelnuts and an egg yolk that had been cured till hard and then grated.  A slightly odd-sounding combination, but very enjoyable.
Down in the basement of this course was some impressive langoustines with a langoustine custard, a couple of cubes of a fairly soft, but underpowered black pudding. The menu tells me that parsnip came into it somewhere: perhaps the white espuma-like substance hiding everything else in the second photograph?  The combination of langoustine and black pudding was good, but on balance I preferred the first stage of this dish.

Simon Rogan and his head chef, Mark Birchall, can elevate humble vegetables to the most remarkable of dishes.  I remember, for example, an astonishing carrot dish three or four years ago.  On this visit, potatoes were centre stage for this next dish.
Potatoes in onion ashes, lovage and wood sorrel
There are a couple of confit small potatoes and some potato crisps on a little bit of shallot purée. The extras - the onion ashes, the lovage purée and even the wood sorrel really add something.  Such a simple dish, but one that delivers on all levels.  If you want to know what  a three Michelin star potato looks like, it's that. Or should be.

Now, about two hours ago, I'd skipped a course (the cod yolk), and it was time for its replacement: sweetbreads and carrots.
Sweetbreads and carrots
Nicely cooked lambs sweetbreads and very carroty yellow carrots and orange carrot purée, with a couple of wood blewits and some flower petals. I enjoyed this greatly and, particularly considering it was created on the fly, it worked really well in terms of flavours, though I wonder whether there might have been something texturally missing if this were going be developed into a dish for the menu.

I always find the large tasting menu at L'Enclume has a nice ebb and flow throughout, eschewing traditional ideas of fish before meat and such like.  So on this occasion we went from the richness of the sweetbread and carrot dish to the light delicate Dover sole dish that followed.  Somehow that flow always seems to work.  I suspect the often overlooked impeccable timing may have something to do with that, as the speed at which dishes come out of the kitchen and are served similarly ebbs and flows.
Butter poached dover sole with razor clams, leeks, nasturtium butter
This was a delightful dish combining the sweet fish and shellfish with the charred leeks, the salinity of (I think) sea beets and the spiciness of the nasturtiums: the nasturtium butter in particular was verging on the revelatory.  The sole had been boned and then the fillets glued back together again before being poached at a low temperature in butter: on some recent visits, I've found the fish cooked in this manner to be a bit too underdone, but on this occasion it was perfectly cooked.

The savoury part of the menu now drew to a close with a dish that didn't really need the rather impressive new cutlery.

Laguiole knives seem to be becoming more commonplace in restaurants, but of course they're French, so do not fit with L'Enclume's ethos of sourcing only from the UK.  Last time, at this stage in the meal, it was a local horn-handled knife by Abbeyhorn of Carnforth.  I have to say that its Studio William replacement is much classier and more befitting of L'Enclume. Not that the beautifully tender dexter beef that arrived after the cutlery really needed such a sharp knife.
Aged Dexter, cabbage, mushrooms, salsify, dittander
The beef was excellent, topped with some smoked bone marrow.  The salsify, one of my favourite vegetables, was as delicious as ever, though I wonder what it gained from being puréed. The mushrooms were hen of the wood mushrooms, and I was immediately won over by the dittander emulsion.  Dittander is a herb than needs wider exposure: it's flavour - between horseradish and wasabi - is terrific.  What didn't impress me so much was the cabbage, which was very lightly cooked and also went cold very quickly.

Previously, we've gone straight from the main meat course to desserts.  At this meal, however, there was something of a reprise of how the meal started, with a couple of small tasters.
Milk skin, chestnut, truffle
This was fabulous: the delicate milk skin contained a truffle ice cream and then with some chestnut grated over.  It doesn't sound much, but it was a terrific mouthful.
Burnt pear and beetroot
Burnt as in sort of bruléed, I think; sweet cheese and a beetroot purée on top.  Nothing wrong with it, but it just seemed a bit uni-dimensional to me.

The next dish, with its slate on slate pun, I've had in a couple of guises.  This time the ice-cream in the edible slate was made from grapes grown in Cartmel.  Very refreshing, and also moving us onto the sweeter aspect of the menu.  The lemon verbena "cake" and cobnuts worked well with it.
Cartmel grapes, cobnuts, lemon verbena
The next dessert was another one that's well night impossible to photograph particularly meaningfully; and indeed as you eat it, you might as well have been eating it blindfold, as it's really a dish where you just shove your spoon in and take a mouthful of it all mixed together.  It is, boringly needless to say, entirely delicious.
Buttermilk custard with caramelised quince, rosehip, muscovado, honey oats
Next was a meadowsweet frozen mousse with apple, a walnut crumb and a few baby sorrel leaves that really added something.  Another good dish that pretty much rounded off the meal.  I'm a huge fan of Simon Rogan's style of not particularly sweet dessert courses.
Meadowsweet, granny smith, sorrel and walnuts

Other than coffee/tea, the final things to come to the table are an empty wine glass and a large pebble into which have been drilled holes to take tiny little cornets of ice cream: on this occasion I think it was a celeriac cornet filled with celeriac ice cream, a parsnip cornet with woodruff ice cream and a raspberry (they said raspberry) cornet with a sweet cheese ice cream.
Celeriac, sweet cheese, woodruff
Then the final item on the printed menu and the wine glass are united.  An apple juice fizz with a hint of douglas fir.
Douglas fir and apple

Coffee is always good, the herbal tea trolley is a joy to behold, as well as producing a really delicious mint based tisane.  I have reservations about the petit four now, though.  For at least a couple of years now the petit four has been a circle of aerated chocolate, topped with a Kendal mint cake ice cream which itself has been coated in chocolate.  I expect most customers' appetites are flagging at this stage and not interested in petits fours, but - particularly compared to earlier years - it rather seems that the kitchen's interest has flagged at this stage too.  This doesn't seem to quite match the ambition and constant change and search for improving on excellence that runs throughout the rest of the meal.  It also marks a notable departure from the philosophy of only using British ingredients.

I think it wouldn't be inappropriate to vary the petits fours seasonally, and return to maybe the style of July 2010 (though not those black tables, please!)?
L'Enclume coffee & petits fours, July 2010

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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Game Week at the Freemasons, Wiswell: Roger Jones of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn

I always think hard about these guest chef nights at restaurants. The guest chef is working in a strange kitchen, with a bunch of cooks s/he's probably never met before, let alone worked with, and quite often with the host's suppliers not their own.
From the customer's point of view, you might be getting the guest chef's recipes, but you're in the dining room, which isn't the guest chef's dining room, the staff aren't theirs, neither is the wine list, coffee machine etc.  My point is, you're not getting the experience of going to the 'other' restaurant.  So, for me, the guest chef has to be sufficiently far away that it would be a real trouble (and expense, because these nights are never cheap) to get to.  Either that, or some element of competition or fun/theme that attracts me.

Little Bedwyn, between Marlborough and Newbury, is well over 200 miles from me, so a night at the Freemasons at Wiswell certainly wins on that score.  It's still not the same as going to the Harrow at Little Bedwyn though. But a lot easier.

Roger Jones has held a Michelin star at The Harrow since 2007.  But since Paul Heathcote hung up his apron, Michelin hasn't been able to draw its attention away from Northcote and the Box Tree, and they seem to be very reluctant to recognise the achievement of anywhere inbetween. Other guides largely follow suit. Certainly the Freemasons at Wiswell must be edging close to a star, but for this one night there was one star in residence.

One glance at the menu and I tried to tweet a picture saying, "Yes, that is going to do very nicely." But the signal in Wiswell is too bad to do that.

But before that, there were a couple of canapés to deal with.  First came a ball of tuna sashimi filled with a wasabi-flavoured cream cheese on a shiso leaf.  For me, I thought it was marginally too big, and could have coped with a little less of the filling: it was quite difficult to bite in two elegantly, but too big to pop in the mouth whole. The filling was, however, jolly good: like Boursin that's been on its holidays to Japan and wishes it hadn't come back. Not sure if this was Roger Jones' canapé, or whether host, Steve Smith had done both canapés.
The second canapé was one of Steve Smith's: a foie gras hot dog.  I've had this before, though as an accompaniment to soup.  This is a foie gras enriched boudin blanc which has been breadcrumbed and then fried, before being presented in a mini brioche bun.  Personally, I'd quite like to try these without the crumb and less pungent ball-game ketchup and mustard. Now I've written that, I can't get the idea of a truffle mayonnaise and a roast chicken fluid gel out of my mind over an un-crumbed foie gras hot dog.  Consider the challenge laid down, Mr Smith.
Steve Smith's foie gras hot dog
We then moved on to Roger Jones' menu proper, starting with a shot glass of Bull Shot - this was a really rich, deeply flavoured, jellied game stock spiked with vodka. I've had these Bull Shots before occasionally, but this one was distinguished by the really superb game consommé and just enough vodka that you could notice it, but not the alcohol.  And if that wasn't enough, the shot glass was topped with an excellent little biscuit.
Bull Shot
This was followed by Cured and Marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices.  The lobster tail had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil and spiced Halen Mon sea salt, apparently spiced with Thai Lobster Chilli Jam (which I couldn't really detect). It was presented on a large shiso leaf (which really added something), together with a rather interesting salted wafer-biscuit-cracker thing, some diced tomato and little blobs of pea purée and of carrot purée.  I didn't think the two purées really added much: if anything they took away from the freshness and brightness of the rest of the dish.  But the lobster was really terrific: a beautifully balanced set of subtle flavours.  For some reason it had never occurred to me reading the menu that the lobster would be merely only very lightly cured, so it was almost like a sashimi of lobster.  What you can't see in the photograph (it's behind the cracker) is that each plate had a perfectly prepared slice of the claw: the central cartilage had been neatly removed and then presumably the claw was reformed before being sliced vertically.  A terrific dish.
Cured and marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices
It was at this point that I re-read the menu and realised that Roger Jones had been really rather clever with the menu. The bulk of the menu could have been prepared in the kitchen at the Harrow in Little Bedwyn, entirely within Roger Jones' control, and brought up with him in the boot of the car. The amount of preparation needed from Steve Smith's brigade at Wiswell may well have been minimal, as indeed was the cooking required on the evening - which probably explained why the evening ran more smoothly, with fewer longeurs than is often the case with similar evenings elsewhere.

The next dish was Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel. Another really terrific dish.
Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel
Very good venison, sliced thick enough to be able to really taste it, but thin enough that it felt sexily silky in the mouth.  There was just a hint of something beyond the venison (identified on the menu as spices, truffle and cep dust), which would probably have been more noticeable by its absence than immediately identifiable by its presence. 
A slice of a small torchon of foie gras was the filling in a salted caramel macaroon, which initially seemed to be more of a counterpoint than an accompaniment.  But when combined with the reduced PX sherry dressing and the fresh (and massive) Wiltshire truffle that was liberally grated over half the plate at the table, it was really tied into the dish as a whole.  The menu also mentioned crisps, but neither of us could find anything on the plate that could be called crisps.

The final savoury dish was grouse: Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates. Without a doubt (and leaving aside proper whole roast grouse with the traditional trimmings) this is the finest grouse dish of the last couple of years.  The breast was beautifully cooked and had a good flavour, without being excessively gamey.  The grouse bon bon was almost worth the trip on its own: a really good combination of grouse, black pudding, foie gras, chorizo and raisins.  A slightly odd combination maybe, and it would be easy to sigh at the use of the now ubiquitous chorizo, but there's no doubt it that really worked.  I could have eaten lots of these grouse bons bons.

When we initially read through the menu, we also wondered what on earth was the point of adding dates to parsnip purée. But by golly, it's good and I'll certainly be trying that one myself.  Though it did rather underline Roger Jones' apparent love of having something a bit sweet on most dishes.
Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates
The interior of the foie gras bon bon

Dessert was a plate of blackberry things: blackberry parfait, a blackberry jaffa cake, a blackberry and champagne chocolate truffle and a distinctly moreish blackberry sorbet.  All the elements were spot on.  The chocolate truffle (in the background on the photograph) was momentarily challenging as everyone worked out how to eat it (cue the sound of a lot of spoons crashing onto the plates across the restaurant as everyone tried to cut it vertically), but once you went in horizontally, you found a remarkably thin, well-tempered chocolate shell filled with a ganache that tasted of what it was meant to.  Even if it perhaps wasn't the most visually appealing element, he blackberry jaffa cake seemed rather inspired to me: clearly a jaffa cake, adding a bit of weight to the dessert with its sponge.  A very nicely balanced dessert.
We had started with a 1970s hangover cure, the Bullshot, and finished on something remarkably similar. Resurrecting the now pretty much disappeared tradition of the end of meal savoury, with that classic, the Welsh Rarebit.  Remarkably, this wasn't the first Michelin-starred Welsh Rarebit I've had, though this deserved its rating far more than the other (at the Pipe & Glass in Yorkshire).  It's a bit boring to say it again, but this was quite possibly the finest Welsh Rarebit I've ever had.  Probably the most remarkable thing about it was how light it was, as well as the very finely judged balance of flavours.
According to the menu there are three different Welsh and English cheeses in it, along with fish (which we identified as anchovy), tamarind, ale and spices. All served on beer and truffle toast.
Welsh Rarebit
As we were both driving, we shared one of the matching wine packages.  Somewhat unfortunately, the wines were selected from the Freemasons list, not the utterly stupendous wine list of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, which I've just spent an hour reading, or rather lusting over online. But the sommelier at the Freemasons had done a good job for the most part.
A very nice, 2011 The Opportunist Sauvignon-Riesling blend was a beautiful wine, excellent with the lobster.
2011 Sherwood Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Waipara Valley was not a wine to my taste, tooth-achingly young, and reminding me of Vimto-flavoured boiled sweets with added sherbert. It did not, we thought, go particularly well with the venison either.
2009 Painted Wolf Madach from Stellenbosch (a pinotage dominant blend with grenache, syrah, mourvedre and a bit of merlot) was also far too young really, but was a very good wine that worked extremely well with the grouse dish.
The All Saints Rutherglen Muscat served with the blackberry dessert avoided being cloying with some good acidity, and I thought the coffee and berry flavours worked well with the dessert.
A champagne flute of Wiswell Brew (a light session ale) was fine with the Welsh Rarebit, but felt a bit of a cop out, as surely there must be something on the Freemasons wine list that would have worked without risking mixing grain and grape. I'm thinking of a nice palo cortado.

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