Jul
20

Review: L’Enclume, Cumbria

L'Enclume In Cockermouth we ate in a “fine dining vegetarian restaurant”. I won’t embarass the Quince & Medlar by naming it, but this was fine dining like an earnest attempt at a dinner party by your vegetarian student friends. A couple of days later we had an amazing dish of potato and burnt onion ash that had not a speck or drop of meat in it and so was perhaps the best vegetarian dish I’ve ever had. This was at L’Enclume. Maybe the problem is that (with one or two exceptions) vegetarian cooking is too small a niche and has too many worthy connotations to attract really top notch chefs?

L’Enclume holds a special place for me – it’s the first meal I ate outside the Fat Duck that was exciting, original, entertaining and delicious from beginning to end. This was nearly ten years ago, mind you. We enjoyed a “razor clam reversal” and a “deconstructed Lancashire hotpot” among other Did you ever see such a fine scallop tartare. delights and I vowed to return (you have to vow to return, because it’s in the Lake District which, for a poncy southerner, is pretty much the farthest place from anywhere without accidentally ending up in Scotland). Now that I have, I can actually review it on da blog. So is it still all that good?

Yup.

Okay, okay, I’ll say some more.

The dining room really evokes Cumbria, with white-washed walls of blocky stone and black slate floors, warm mid-century Scandinavian inspired furniture and some restrained ceramics on the wall. I keep my blogs short, so you’re not getting all twenty courses of the menu described. The first – a little grey meringue pebble filled with an amazingly clean concoction of oyster – was magic and it only got better from there. The scallop dish with strawberry puree was another of the best pre-starters, as was the crispy beignet of smoked eel and ham hock.

Stunning. Venison. Fennel. Magic. Special praise for the venison tartare served with charcoal oil and fennel, including a couple of tiny poppers of candied fennel that I would have gobbled by the bucketful. The punch of flavour from the charcoal oil stands in contrast to its dramatic but fairly flavourless use at Story. There was a stunning double dish of langoustine – a delicate tartare on a crisped cracker on top, and a meaty chunk beneath covered in a deeeeeply flavoured glazed sabayon. It was like Scandi-above, French-below. Whatever that means. Actually if I give a special mention to all the memorable dishes I’ll basically do all of them.

Instead I’ll just linger on what I think is most special about Simon Rogan’s cuisine, something I recognised first at Roganic last year. It’s the proper, positive and effective use of foraged ingredients. Not the “look how clever we are, we garnished your dish with something green from a Tiniest ice creams ever. Loads of flavour hedgerow!” of most modern restaurants. Simon picks wild ingredients with flavours that really sing, that stand in their own right and centre a whole dish, and it’s kinda unique. One of the desserts was a meadowsweet cream, and it had the most wonderfully sun-soaked and delicate barn-straw and meadow flavour. One of the tiny ice creams at the very end was flavoured with pineapple weed, a sort of super-floral chamomile hit. Elderflower brought something new and bright to the delicious main duck dish.

Over twenty courses and a couple of very good glasses of wine the sommelier picked out for us we enjoyed our favourite meal of the year (so far). For the adventurous foodie I can’t recommend L’Enclume highly enough, there’s probably only two or three other candidates in the country for pushing the Meadowsweet cream. Only Simon Rogan does this with foraged stuff boundaries this far while remaining faultlessly delicious throughout. Then again, it’s also in the small club of restaurants whose tasting menu has gone over £100, so it’s unlikely to become a local favourite. More a place of pilgrimage, convenient for being at the gateway to just about the most beautiful part of the country to boot.

Postscript: just a note-to-self really, about service in these bastions of modern fine dining. The room at L’Enclume was quite hushed, and the tables quite intimately close together. As such it was actually really easy to hear the staff introducing all the dishes with exactly the same rehearsed phrases and little bon mots as they introduced them to us. Somehow what was intended to feel personal and unstuffy instead felt very rehearsed and artificial. Not that you could expect busy staff to find new and different ways to introduce twenty complex dishes to twelve different tables! I’m just saying. : )
The menu calls them Crab Sacks and they are indeed

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Jul
13

Review: Cottage in the Wood, Cumbria

Nifty crab salad - never expected to enjoy a lettuce foam! It looks like red squirrels are making a comeback – we saw signs up all over the Lake District telling us to watch out for the little nut-munchers as we drove about, although the only place we actually saw a red squirrel was in the garden of The Cottage in the Wood. That’s because this little restaurant with rooms is exactly what it says: a cottage in the middle of the Whinlatter Forest, described as England’s only true mountain forest. It’s a beautiful setting, with views of the brooding Skiddaw mountain across the valley and the nearest village back at the bottom of the mountain. That view, through big terrace windows, is the only thing the dining room particularly has going for it – on a nice summer evening that’s all it really needs. Service was attentive throughout.

Sturdy piece of duck terrine with apricot puree We tried the tasting menu. It began with a very smart little “crab caesar salad” with a surprisingly flavourful lettuce foam to go with the quenelle of delicate white crab meat. Next was a sturdy terrine of duck with a neatly matched apricot and vanilla puree. Nowt wrong with it, but nowt to really fall in love with. Seared scallops were bound to be in here somewhere, but I’ll admit I’ve never had them in a satay sauce before. It worked, though other flavours work better. Perhaps if the satay had been sparkier?

Next up, the main event: a piece of belted Galloway fillet served pink with a caper puree and some pieces of local blue cheese (the name escapes me, but in the same ballpark as Stilton). Not the greatest ever bit of beef, but it did the job. I think it might have scored more flavour cooked the old fashioned way rather than water-bathed, but I admit I’m no expert! Good sauce, good gravy and the cheese paired well with the meat.

A solid plate of beef n stuff We cleaned our palates with a rum and mango trifle pre-dessert, tasty stuff, topped with a mint granita. But then finished with a pud that involved a coffee-flavoured marscapone mousse that scored nil points for flavour or texture accompanied by a block of aerated chocolate that was in effect a petit four. The bitter chocolate brittle was good.

I always have to be carefully of my conclusions when the final course is a bit disappointing – it really colours recollection of a meal. But really, this was good cooking, just nothing spectacular. For £60 I’d definitely like more fireworks in front of me. If I found myself staying here again – and I would stay here again, it’s a lovely B&B and the breakfasts are fantastic – I’d probably just eat a la carte. I don’t think I’d ever make a special trip to eat up here in the mountains if I wasn’t already coming to see the squirrels.
Red squirrel!

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Jun
23

Review: Menu Gordon Jones, Bath

I basically just stood up at our table to take this “Make sure you don’t complain about anything,” offered our Bed & Breakfast owner helpfully when we told her we had dinner booked at Menu Gordon Jones. “He’s got a bit of a reputation…”

This came as a surprise to me, as I knew nothing much about Gordon Jones except that he’s been impressing diners at his tiny 15 cover restaurant in a quiet corner of Bath for about a year. Over the course of the meal I learned a bit more, as the kitchen is so “open” that Gordon can take literally one step away from his pass to whisper conspiratorially in his rum Glaswegian accent “that’s garlic stem, that is – it’s only in season for a couple of weeks so I’m using it on everything!” Gordon is working hard (or effortlessly?) at being a new breed of knowingly-informal-yet-casually-excellent chef, and because it’s still an unusual thing to find it’s actually a lot of fun. If you’d find the casual intimacy of the chef asking you how you’re liking your bread a bit much, as Gordon himself might put it: you should get yourself back to flippin’ Bath Priory.

Sea trout, popcorn and crisps. Late night fridge buffet? So what did we have? Well, a smashing bread course to start. Nice and hot and sweaty in a bag, with lightly creamed humous, basil oil, chorizo oil and balsamic to dip it in. Couple of neat little onion and beetroot bhajis on the side. First starter was a right old fridge buffet concoction of ceviche sea trout, popcorn, lettuce, crisps and gooseberry – nice kick of citrus and a clear statement of intent. This was followed by the bestest presentation of devilled kidneys that I’ve ever had. Helped along by crispy proscuitto and chorizo and an indelibly tangy sauce with nifty touches like candied hazelnuts and fat white currants on purple carrot puree.

Give me devilled kidneys and I'm yours So, no surprise the fish course was punchy. A lovely piece of John Dory with crab, pickled shitake, a rich swede mash and scorched garlic seed heads. Frankly I’ve always got time for a chef who introduces me to something new! The whole dish was wicked flavourful, my favourite so far. But then the main rocks up. Chef describes it as being like a deconstructed pastilla (as he grates a huge truffle onto it at the table), but it’s just as fair to call it a highly refined cassoulet, especially as he’s taken the trouble of including a piece of the finest French smoked pork sausage I’ve ever tried. The quail is a star, especially the tiny leg on the bone. To be eaten like a very refined caveman. Yum. The borlotti beans at the base are delish, as is the little stick of sweet onion-seed coated pastry that stands in for the pastille.

Mighty good John Dory Pre-dessert was awesome. Why haven’t I been fed sweetcorn sorbet before? Honestly. Yum. The main dessert was a lovely peach tart tatin, a very satisfying close.

Our meal at Menu Gordon Jones goes straight into my top-three for the year. You could argue that the powerful flavours Gordon uses are always going to be delicious, but there’s some great magic here in presenting them in a beautiful and balanced menu. There’s a lot going on, and yet there wasn’t a single mis-step. If I lived in Bath I’d be here every other week, after all the tasting menu is a mere £50 and the wine pairings an extra £35 (a good selection shared with real passion by the sommelier, Italian and Spanish this time, and mostly organic). You’d be a muppet to complain about any of it.
The dining room at Menu Gordon Jones

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Jun
13

Wine tasting in Bordeaux

Un coin de Bordeaux Bordeaux is a wonderful city, with plenty of lovely looking shops and a limitless number of eating options. And with the most significant wine AOCs scattered around it like spokes on a wheel (Graves/Sauternes to the south, St Emilion/Pomerol to the east and Medoc to the west) there couldn’t really be a better base for a wine tour of the region.

If you’ve read about our other wine trips, you’ll know the general drill; it’s good to find an organised visit or two, as that’s how you’ll learn about the wines and taste some great specimens, it’s better still to hunt out a few little independent makers whose target market are locals rather than tourists.

However, there were three little letters that kept popping up in Bordeaux that put a bit of a fly in the ointment: RDV. Which stands for rendez-vous. Which means that most of the winemakers want visitors to make an appointment to visit their vineyard. Naturalement! After all, if they allowed you to just show up at any time between 9 and 5 you might be left with the sad impression that they were, pffft, trying to sell wine or something! Oddly enough this doesn’t seem to be an issue in the Loire… the Rhone valley… in Alsace… or even in Champagne. Yes, you could be mistaken for thinking the Bordeaux region is a bit up itself.

The barrel-filled cellars of Bordeaux Equally, you could be thinking that I’m a bit up myself. But just cogitate a moment: a day out touring and tasting wine, you might want to stop at 4 vineyards, spending anywhere between twenty minutes and an hour at each. Somewhere in there you’ll need to find lunch (no easy feat in rural France), oh, and maybe you pass a beautiful chateau or a bucolic village with a fascinating church to explore. Basically, you’re meant to be on holiday. But pre-booking 4 vineyards for, let’s say, 10:30… 11:45… 14:30… 16:00… and you’ve got yourself a pretty damn regimented day. Stop to photograph a pair of goats on a tractor and your whole schedule is out the window.

Happily, the wodge of brochures we got from the Tourist Information showed that about 20% of the winemakers will greet visitors without an RDV, and we were more than happy to give our time (and Euros) to them. We did strike a balance, and made one appointment each day at recommended places where we could take a proper tour and try the wines of a more famous house. These were all good, so I’d happily recommend on to you: Chateau Girauld in Sauternes, Chateau Soutard in St Emilion and Chateau Gruaurd Larose in St Julien (Medoc). You pay at all three of these for the tour and tasting, but frankly unless you’ve got a big budget you won’t be buying many bottles from them anyway. E82 for the most reasonable bottle of Gruaurd Larose grand cru. These are learning experiences, and cooing-at-lovely-chateaux experiences.

Vineyards around St Emilion Still and all, my favourite visits are those independent winemakers who welcome us to their less grand operations. There was a nice chap in Sauternes who paused in his DIY activities, renovating his centuries old farmhouse, to dust off his hands and introduce us to his beautiful sweet wines aged in (sacred bleu!) acacia wood or American oak barrels, rather than the traditional French oak. In the Medoc we met a fellow who seemed dispiritingly dour at first, but turned out to just be French, and was more than happy to try and answer our questions. He even made a SatNav joke, that I embarrassingly failed to get. I bought lots of his fantastic wine instead (grand cru Bordeaux for £12!). Domaine De La Gauche and Chateau Biston-Brillette respectively, if’n you’re interested.

Bordeaux itself is worth a longer mention before I finish. From online and guidebook descriptions, I thought it would be fairly ho-hum. But it’s not. It may well be lacking in world-class unique attractions, no Sagrada Familia or Collosseum, but it is just a very handsome city, awash with stylish shopping and delicious looking places to eat or drink. It felt very liveable, and I’d like to have had a couple of days just moochin’ around it. Bearing in mind the weather was crap for most of our visit and this is high praise indeed.

Bordeaux Wines
Wine tasting beneath one of the great chateaux Here’s where I show off the soupcon of knowledge I gleaned on our trip to Bordeaux.

Apart from Sauternes, the renowned wines of Bordeaux are all red. But what an exception Sauternes is! The most famous dessert wines in the world, you don’t have to pay £500+ for a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem to find out why; we found lovely ones for under £15. Made with the semillon grape, usually with some sauvignon blanc added, their sweetness and funky complexity come from botrytis – the noble rot which affects the grapes naturally and dries them out on the vine during the mists of autumn. Sauternes has a perfect micro-climate for this, and semillon is the grape variety that holds up best under the rot. Barsac, very nearby, produces wines just as lovely, perhaps a bit less powerful, and less expensive.

The dry white wines of Bordeaux are just about okay, usually sauvignon blancs and at least of higher quality than the pub plonk back home.

The red wines of Bordeaux use a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In St Emilion, Pomerol and Graves the Merlot is dominant (wines might be 70% to 100% merlot) and so more fruity. In Medoc the cab is more often dominant, often 60% and often in combination with other oddments of Malbec or Cabernet Franc. This brings out more leathery, herbal or earthy flavours. But when I say fruity, don’t for a minute think it will be like drinking the grown-up Ribena that you might get if you ask for a Chilean Merlot at your local Pizza Express. All of the “premier” wines here are aged in oak, often over a year, and so they have a tannic and woody complexity that balances the fruits. These are also the wines that are best at least 5 years old and can keep for much longer. If you like it simpler, look for “second” wines. Every chateau (Bordeaux-ese for winemaker) produces a premier wine with their best vines, which is oaked and pricey, and a second wine from their younger vines, which is usually unoaked and cheaper.

Finally, it’s really well worth noting this point: many Bordeaux reds are meant to be drunk with food, and go instantly from quite difficult to immensely delicious when you do. And that’s it. We learned all sorts of interesting stuff about pumping over and pressed wines, but I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself!

Pretty
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May
14

Review: Septième Péché, Bordeaux

Mango tower, super dramatic dessert Bordeaux is a delight for foodies of a certain stripe. If your idea of pleasure runs to chocolate, macarons, cheese, patisserie and fine wine then this is the place pour vous. It also has oodles of interesting looking places to eat, once you get over the standard set that appear in all the “Top 5 Places To Eat in Bordeaux” articles scattered over the internet. The one that we found, with a Michelin star to its name indeed, was Septième Péché. Whose name translates as the seventh sin, not the seventh fish as I had assumed.

This is a small restaurant tucked away on a big street. The two dining rooms are simple with some bold photographic art on the walls, and the service was friendly and pleasantly informal as French Michelin’d places go. Needless to say there was some pricey Bordeaux on the wine list, but there was plenty at the more reasonable end too.

Our five-course menu started really well with a shot glass of hot and deep crab bisque. A little too hot, actually, we had to juggle the shot glasses gingerly by the base. First starter was a salad of very toothsome squid and herbal greenery, topped with a disc of squid ink pasta. Then the speciality of the house, a gently coddled and breadcrumbed egg served with various fungal goops. Och, actually it was a very pretty plate of food, and fully fungal in taste too, but it was essentially four purees attended by an almost liquid egg and a little bowl of mushroom broth on the side. I’m glad I hadn’t scoffed all my bread as this needed a mop rather than a fork.

Cod and oysters at Septieme Peche For main I chose the cod, a well cooked piece of fish with a very sprightly accompaniment: oysters, celery and sauce bearnaise all tied together with a warm oyster sauce. This bounced around on the palate really well; salt from the oysters, butteryness from the sauces, fresh green crunch from the celery. The other main was a good plate of pigeon, including breast and leg and a tiny cigarette of offal. Tasty. It was presented under a glass cloche full of bonfire smoke, and I do rather like my dramatic touches so I can forgive the watering eyes.

Pre-dessert I liked; lime sorbet, vanilla espuma and a shot of tangy lemon in a test tube. Proper-dessert I didn’t like; a plate of chocolate that was all about presentation. The chocolate mousse was perfectly good, but the white chocolate globe was contained in a ridiculous and rubbery spherification that we all enjoyed chasing around my plate with forks until it was finally pierced. Inside? Melted white chocolate goop. There was a curl of sugar and a decent passionfruit sorbet too. To be fair, the other dessert, a dramatic looking precipice of bright orange tuile with an intriguing white spaghetti fuse, was a very tasty mango affair with a zingy sorbet, although the coconut spaghetti was more fun than flavour.

It’s a small restaurant with an ambitious chef, and I think the odd miss-hit in the balance of textures and flavours was forgivable for the E60 price tag. To my mind it’s one of those roulette restaurants – go along on another day, and the chef might nail five perfect dishes. Worth a visit.
Doing my mad scientist look with a lemon potion

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