Simon Rogan is known in the U.K. food world as an innovative and slightly quirky chef, a unique talent going his own way at L’Enclume, a restaurant in the Lake District of northern England.
It required a visit from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in their BBC series “The Trip” to put Rogan, 43, on the map for a broad audience. The comedians took over L’Enclume for two days, hired extras to play fellow diners and improvised around the menu, including a green-hued aperitif they compared to mucus.
“We’ve always been classed as the Heston Blumenthal of the north,” Rogan said, referring to the chef at the Fat Duck. “But we’re very different. Yes, we use the techniques but we’re not throwing liquid nitrogen in people’s faces. It would probably freeze their faces off,” he said, and started laughing. “We keep things a lot more subtle.”
L’Enclume, in the pretty village of Cartmel, was named Best U.K. Restaurant 2010 in the BMW Square Meal awards and Rogan is hoping to open in London, traveling hundreds of miles each week to visit potential sites, only to find they have been snapped up by other chefs. Why does he feel the need to open another establishment in London?
“We don’t get much international exposure,” he said, citing the World’s 50 Best restaurant awards. “Unless you’re in London, forget it. Because it’s the center of media and where things are at, then obviously if you want your name up in lights and you want to feed your ego that’s where you need to be.”
He’d like to create a venue inspired by Dos Palillos, a tapas bar opened in Barcelona this year by Albert Raurich, the former head chef at El Bulli. The layout is similar to that of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in London, with diners seated at a bar around the cooking area. The food would be midway between that of L’Enclume and Rogan & Co., his casual eatery in Cartmel.
“I’d be interested in something really casual,” he said. “The West End is the place we’ve looked at most, Mayfair, but we’ve looked in the City as well. I thought the City might be a good option because if we just opened from Monday to Friday, I could be in London in the early part of the week and then at L’Enclume at the weekend, when it is busiest.”
Rogan said that he has simplified his cooking in recent years. He has acquired the nearby Howbarrow Farm, where he grows vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers for the restaurant.
“The main thing is we’re really connected to our surroundings,” he said. “In the past, we’ve tried to deconstruct a carrot and do all sorts of flashy things with it. Now, we’re just trying to cook the perfect carrot. I don’t know whether it’s growing up or less showing off or whatever.
“There’s so many people coming into the industry that want to split the atom before they know how to do the basics. We’ve had certain people from certain very avant-garde restaurants that can’t even make a bloody stock and for me it’s very important that you learn the basics. So we’ve tried to distance ourselves a little bit from that.”
Don’t go thinking that Rogan’s cooking lacks ambition. I had a superb 12-course dinner there recently featuring dishes such as Cumberland sauce jelly and butternut squash, blood sausage, rocket and rye toast; and iced celery and chestnuts, white chocolate and English truffles. Or how about my favorite dish: salt and vinegar crispy rice, cod “yolk,” bacon, watercress, cream of egg and garlic?
“We prepare a salt-cod mousse mixture, but we make it quite slack, so it’s got the consistency of a yolk when you cut into it when it’s warm,” Rogan said. “We freeze it into spheres, dip it in a fish jelly which is colored with turmeric so when you take it out it looks like a yolk. Then we defrost them. And the jelly, you can warm it through and when you pick it up it’s got the feeling of a soft egg yolk.
“Then -- for a bit of texture -- we puff up some wild rice and put a vinegar powder through it, so it tastes like salt-and-vinegar puffs. Then finish it off with a hot garlic-and-egg cream. It’s served in a little bowl so you can delve around with your spoon and destroy it basically. You pick up all those lovely flavors and textures. And there’s a bit of bacon and a bit of watercress.”
Well, that’s one of the 12 courses taken care of.
Late in the evening, when the last diners were leaving L’Enclume, Rogan was to be found in the pub, drinking with his kitchen team and still talking about food and restaurants. He’s obsessed, in the way that many great chefs are. I have my fingers crossed that he finds somewhere in London.
L’Enclume restaurant with rooms, Cavendish Street, Cartmel, Nr Grange Over Sands, Cumbria, LA11 6PZ. Tel. +44-15395-36362 or click on http://www.lenclume.co.uk/.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? The 12-course tasting menu costs 80 pounds ($123).
Sound level? Not noisy: 70-75 decibels.
Inside tip? Don’t miss the breakfast.
Special feature? Vegetables straight from the farm.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? You may find yourself proposing marriage.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)