I've driven two hundred miles to go for a meal at one of the poshest restaurants in the country and they've had the audacity to fuck up the booking.
"We do need forty-eight hours' notice to do the 'Underground' menu," our brusquely elegant maitresse d'hotel says, clocking my unironed shirt and cheap shoes with more than a glimmer of condescention.
"Look, I called over a week ago and you rang me yesterday to confirm. Unless weeks have been metricated or something I think that counts."
"Who was it you spoke to?"
"British chap, southern. Sounded a bit posh, like-" She cuts me off.
"Well, if he was British then it would have been Simon, the MD." A look of concern crosses her face. "You know, I did think it was odd you being booked in at such an early time." Another pause. "I'll just go and check."
She disappears while I chomp on popcorn in a spicy candy coating, which is surprisingly good. My bloody Mary, sadly, is nothing special - watery, even - but we're sat outside in a lovely, bijou garden by a stream and I find it hard to muster up much irritation. So what if we can't have the full Monty? They've got a perfectly passable twelve course menu a la carte. That should suffice, right?
I should back up briefly. The restaurant is L'Enclume, a four year-old establishment tucked in the tiny village of Cartmel just to the south of the Lake District. I'm here because I chanced across a boingboing link to a dry but nontheless intriguing review of a "molecular gastronomy" meal that Rufus (of howithappened.com) enjoyed there earlier in the year. It was a tall tale of pina colada wafers and foie gras lollipops - completely insane and hardly recogniseable as real food. Normally, overblown and overpriced bullshit cuts very little ice with people who, like me, can't afford it but circumstances have prevailed to bring me here so I might as well give it a shot.
The Md' comes back three more times. First to tell us that the 'Underground' is definitely off, ten minutes later to say they'll "have a go" and then, as we're being led to our table by a smart young Frenchman, to concede that "he's getting what he can ready and it's going to be as near as dammit the 'Underground'." I suppose that should be good news but at this point I just want them to shut up and make it a little less obvious they're just after the extra £30 a head that the special menu commands.
Inside the restaurant is laid out with protractor accuracy. Most tables are for two and all place settings are at adjacent sides which seems designed not just for illicit hand-holding but also to see and engage with other guests without effort. Mental note: nice touch. One other table are already seated and they are just receiving that pina colada wafer I saw in the review. It’s odd seeing it for real.
I know absolutely nothing about wine so when the list comes I make a few comments about how a nice, light white would probably be appropriate to a range of tastes before picking one at random. It is, surprisingly, exactly what I wanted; a clean, sharp base to hose off my tongue between courses. Our waiter pours from the bottom of the bottle and glides off just as our first course arrives.
“This is called Dehydration, Rehydration,” our waitress tells us. “It’s pina colada cooked into a wafer with dried fig foam.” We nod appreciatively. “So, you see,” she carries on, “one used to be liquid and is now a solid…” I know I don’t look like the most sophisticated punter but I have heard the term ‘rehydration’ before, thanks . She leaves and I pluck the wafer from its stand - a napkin ring with a slot in it - and bite off the corner. Across the room, the girl is using the wafer to scoop up fig foam. Curses; I feel like I’ve put a foot wrong already, especially as the super-dry wafer is now stuck to my tongue and teeth in equal measure and with astonishing tenacity. I grab some foam and attempt to dissolve the toffee-like passenger on my - good grief. That really tastes like figs. For a foam, quite arrestingly strongly, too. For a few moments my inner monologue is interrupted as I explore various combinations of the two parts. It’s fun but it’s pretty much as I imagined, except it works better. It isn’t just a gimmick; this is genuinely quite edible.
Course two comes out and it’s ice cream. Two minute, single bite cones arranged in a weird, curling steel stand. One is red onion flavour, our waitress informs us, with dried pepper sprinkles and the other is lovage flavour with a flake of congealed Worcester sauce. I wait until she leaves to raise an eyebrow. The lovage has to go first; it’s a delicate shade of green and as I bite into it, two things happen. Firstly my tongue is arrested by the surreal combination of ice cream texture and savoury herbal taste, jazzed up by what is, despite being solid, very definitely my favourite bolognaise ingredient. Simultaneously, the narrow end of the cone bursts and a dollop of green ice cream launches itself onto the table. Confused in the mouth and flustered in the cheeks I struggle to compose myself, smearing a nice green stain into the tablecloth. It’s the second course and it already looks like I’m out for a drunken Tikka Marsala at the local curry house. Curses.
Course three is a pate de foie gras lollipop with pickled onion Turkish delight. The lollipop is just pate formed on the end of a stick, which is a bit of a cheat but I suppose I’m impressed that it’s firm enough to stay there. I gingerly prise the wood out of another custom-made little presentation stand and place the pink disc on my tongue. Good grief. It’s hard. No, it’s really hard. It even fractures like a boiled sweet, despite being creamy and rich like, well, pate de foie gras. I’m now almost completely confused and slice off what must just be just onion flavoured gelatine.. But isn’t because it actually has that floury, almost granular texture of a certain Eastern-titled confectionary.
I’m beginning to lose my cool. We’ve had three tiny courses - the first three, remember - and I’ve already had ice cream, a lollipop, fruit and Turkish delight. I’ve also had pate, lovage, chilli pepper and Worcester sauce. I take a swig of wine.
Where do you go from there? Evidently, backwards. Course four isn’t so good; it’s a salty, salty soy sponge with powdered tuna and some sort of green substance and crème fraiche. I’m worried that the first three courses were just for fun and now I’m going to get an onslaught of completely inaccessible, terrifying foodie nonsense which just upsets my palate and my constitution. I send half of it back with the waiter, which smarts disproportionately for something smaller than your average steak house chip. Maybe because it’s about six quid’s worth or maybe I just feel out of place and apprehensive. I pray for something reassuring and am rewarded with a minute bread roll the size of a golf ball. This allows me to tuck into the weird cylinder of green butter that’s been waiting in the middle of the table since we sat down. It’s delicious; the bread infused with a light parmesan and the herby butter offsets it with a reassuring familiarity. Maybe I haven’t lost my grip on the evening just yet. Look, here comes the waitress with the next course, a nice friendly.. Jesus, whatever it is she’s bringing it out in a syringe.
She parks an ornate eggcup of thai soup on the table and points the pregnant syringe at me menacingly.
“This is a shot of egg,” comes the now mandatory introduction. “Leave it about fifteen seconds before eating and it will congeal into noodles.” She squirts, the egg congeals, I’m just relieved she didn’t stick the thing in my face and try to inject my sinuses with chilli sauce.
The staff withdraw, except for our French friend who appears out of nowhere to top up our glasses before slipping away again silently. The soup smells good but must have been really hot to set the noodles so quickly. I refrain from dipping my bread but manage to sip out of a teaspoon just noisily enough to annoy the two middle-aged ladies at the next table. The appeal of childish subversion suddenly disappears as I taste what is just honest soup. The noodles are noodles and the soup is just really good spicy Thai soup. I’m suspicious and probe the bottom. Juicy buckwheat comes up on my spoon, stiff little explosions of taste that pop from between my teeth. I scoff the lot, feeling better, less overfaced - refreshed, even. I’m back on track.
The courses keep coming. Deep fried pork cheek is next, accompanied by very green Brussels sprout foam and mascarpone. Well I think it’s mascarpone but the texture is far too light. The pork is delicious, tasty and tender. On another day I could have eaten a large slab of it but today I’m busy exploring.. Good grief; that foam really tastes of sprouts. I start giggling, much to the amusement of the old girls to my right. This is ridiculous. I’ve lived through twenty six Christmas dinners in my life and through immense good fortune have never had a sprout that was over cooked. I know this is hard to believe but evidently my Mother doesn’t listen to Sarah Kennedy. I know sprouts and I love them nice and firm - raw, even, as a treat - and I would put the solidity average at around a 65, on a scale where Wagon Wheels are a solid 100 and Heinz Big Soup is about a 10. With one mouthful, Simon Rogan has slammed the average down to about -5 by serving me sprouts so impossibly light they make penny sweet prawns seem like pork scratchings. Yet despite the delicate texture my mouth is filled with sprouty, tasty vapours, soaking into my sinuses and offsetting the meaty pork far more intimately than the six or so actual blooms that must have gone into this serving. It’s confusing but thrilling, too.
From here the meal takes off. It’s just an onslaught of subverted foodstuffs; familiar, comforting ingredients with familiar tastes and colouring.. but invariably in the wrong state of matter. Asparagus sauce. Anchovy mayonnaise. Soft-centre carrots. The combinations are silly, too, but every one works perfectly. Nuts, pork and watermelon on one plate? Bring it on. Lamb steak and fig semolina? Probably. I’ve long stopped being able to take in what I’m being told. Each introduction is so odd, so hard to imagine and - here’s the rub - so reliably fantastic that I’ve lost interest completely in detailing exactly what it is and trying to form a preconception because that would only be dashed by a surge of familiar flavours in revelatory combinations and inappropriate textures. But I’ve got a handle on it. I’m cruising now.
Or am I? With such small portions it’s tempting just to shove it in and see what happens but a couple of courses don’t work like that. I discover that monkfish, then nut candy works great but together they‘re a clashing fright. Maybe some sophistication, some thought, is appropriate. I’m reminded of an online account of eating a liquidised Happy Meal - completely disgusting, as expected - and realise it’s unreasonable to expect I can just shovel this down haphazard and expect it to be at its best. I start to pay attention to the staff again but they’re struggling to be serious as they bring out dish after dish that the chef is doing off the cuff. Several times we’re getting food, then they’re looking at it and saying, “you’ll need a knife with that, eh.” The eating advice is getting sillier too. At first I think it’s just the booze at first but then I’m informed that my fried scallop is served with “magic peas.” Magic peas, eh? Thanks for that. They feel normal under the fork so I toss one onto my tongue, where it vanishes instantly, leaving only a flash of pea essence over my tongue. It’s quite the strangest feeling I’ve had all night and that childish giggle comes back. Magic peas! I’m laughing about it with the slightly nonplussed women to my right and trying not to spill the few I have left down my shirt in all the excitement. I feel like a child in a sweet shop, at times literally: bright yellow jellies, orange foams and quivering green mousses shine out of dishes which taste like haute cuisine but look like the pick ‘n’ mix in Woolworths. The upmarket, muted surroundings make this innocent astonishment all the more risqué; here we are in a hundred pound a head restaurant and people are joking and laughing with the staff, all of us under the spell of the wonderful wizard of food, just out of sight behind a white starch curtain.
I’ve completely lost my cool. I feel like something entirely new has been unveiled to me and I’m revelling in it like an apprentice let loose with the power saw. I had no idea my mouth could make me laugh; I’m learning to walk, getting my first paycheque, seeing my first real naked woman - a whole new facet of the world has opened up and, far from a passing glimpse, I’m drinking in the view like a teenage boy on his first properly exciting date. My tongue has become an organ of complexity and joy; like eyes but unencumbered by the responsibility of work. Mine mouth hath been opened. The toad in the hole to Damascus.
Eventually we start winding down towards desserts. There’s a truly monumental cheese board which, despite being the single largest and best selection of cheese I’ve ever seen, actually looks so familiar as to be quite dull by contrast. We nibble at some delicious Roquefort, not wanting to fill up, until we’re back in the game with jelly topped with foam that disappears in the mouth like a ghost, leaving a mysterious, strong taste of ginger beer but no physical sensation to evidence its existence. How can ginger beer foam be surprising? I’m just in awe. In fact, it’s better than awe. This is better than just a meal. I’m thrilled that money can buy this. I’m happier about my whole life because of it.
On a garden break between courses I recline in a chair and stroke the grass. I feel like I’m on ecstasy; I can feel every fibre in every leaf and sense every fold in the warm evening air as it rolls around my replete arm. Yeah, even my arm is full. I hope there aren’t too many more courses to go. I actually have a headache in my taste centre; I should have stretched it off or something because now it’s overloaded; I’ve tasted more in the past four hours than I could do in a lifetime of fast food or even home cooking. I’ve been played like a fiddle, stretched taught and plucked on every food-related part of my brain until I can take no more.
I make it to the end, but only just. I stumble back outside and sip crisp coffee by the stream. Ducks are bidding each other a noisy goodnight in the bushes below me and despite the enormous load of food I’m carrying my mind is racing and I can’t sit still. I wander around the garden, stroking the bushes. I dance to non-existent music and the ducks make my eyes sting briefly for the joy of being alive. God dammit, I’ve missed feeling like this. I want to tell the man who did it.
“Excuse me; before he goes, can I speak to Simon?”
“Sorry, he’s gone for the evening.” Disappointment wells up. “He’s probably buying a round at the pub.”
You know what? Nothing could be more perfect.
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