Bang for your buck: my mother’s “fantastic” venison


Until two weeks ago, my attention had not been overly troubled by oyster pebbles. It's just, well, they had never really come up. Why would they, I mean? A bowl full of pebbles, in which is hidden a tiny, pebble-like meringue filled with an oyster cream of remarkable sharpness, isn't something that is often served in the Muston household. But now I look upon them with a favour previously reserved for close family members.

And it is not just a passing fancy of my own, for the place that served them, L'Enclume, Simon Rogan's restaurant in the pocket-sized Cumbrian village of Cartmel, was just awarded a perfect 10 in The Good Food Guide, and with it the mantle of best restaurant in the UK.

The laurelling of L'Enclume by the 64-year-old guide was not terribly surprising. Rogan is both famous and fêted and now runs six restaurants (including Fera at Claridge's). He is the chef that chefs like, a champion of localism whose daily changing menu is largely sourced from the restaurant's farm, and in its 12 years of life, his Cartmel outpost has collected two Michelin stars.

I admit then, that I am in "the arrière-garde of the avant-garde", to use Roland Barthes's memorable phrase. But still, it was a striking evening for me, not just because of the setting, in this tiny medieval village so far from any city.

Nor just because of the food – small, precise and amazing as it was – and securing the dual successes of getting my father who never eats shellfish to eat a raw langoustine, and my mother to eat a piece of venison which would normally be "much too bloody" for her and then have her exclaiming "fantastic!" What was better than all that star-scraping culinary excellence was the service.

Service in posh restaurants with tasting menus, and bills that often pass the three-figure mark, can be, frankly, awful. Oftentimes, the staff can have a pomposity to rival those people who work in Knightsbridge boutiques, or else they are so oleaginous that you worry they might stain the tablecloth.

At L'Enclume, they were poised and efficient but also kindly and amiable – they made my parents feel comfortable. It was almost like (shock!) they were quite glad to have you in the restaurant and they hoped that you'd have a good time; rather than wishing you'd bugger off out of their hair at your earliest possible convenience.

After the meal, I asked the Maitre d' about his staff and he explained that in the morning all of them practised "people skills", where they role-played at being the worst waiter they could think of, the result of which is that they were the best waiter I could think of: friendly without being intrusive, interested without being oily and just plain nice.

If only all posh restaurants were as easy on the service as they are on the palate.