There's a slew of TV reality shows at the moment following urbanites who drop out of the rat race to pursue their dreams in some idyllic rural setting. If the central character happens to be a chef, such as the current docusoap candidate John Burton Race, even better - that's two popular reality formats for the price of one.
Simon Rogan would be a wonderful subject for that kind of show. He's a young, talented chef, he has hair like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and he earned his stripes under some of London's most demanding taskmasters, including Marco Pierre White. Then he gave it all up, and relocated his family to a village in the Lake District, where he sank his savings into his own restaurant with rooms, L'Enclume.
Here, though, is where the story gets really interesting. Because instead of playing it safe and doling out comfort food to tourists on the Beatrix Potter trail, he has chosen to emulate his hero, El Bulli's Ferran Adria, probably the world's most exciting and influential chef. Rogan's menu is a wild ride of crazy-sounding combinations, obscure ingredients and eccentric treatments. Dishes might be flavoured with bark, grasses or long-forgotten herbs. This is as far from comfort food as it's possible to get.
Rogan's modernist mission is signalled by L'Enclume's interior, a Philippe Starckadder mix of rustic and trendy, with tan leather bucket chairs beamed down among the original features of what was once the village blacksmiths. There's a glorious riverside garden, and a buzz in the air quite untypical of most British country restaurants.
Much on the all-singing, all-dancing menu is unfamiliar. How to choose between duck roasted with mugwort and beef with Good King Henry? To do it justice, we went for the eight-course tasting menu, a £65-a-head pas de deux across Rogan's most fanciful creations. And for £25 a head extra, you get a different glass of wine with each course, selected from a lovingly compiled list by the vastly experienced sommelier.
The feast that followed - a parade of deconstructions, reductions, foams and jellies - was variable, but never dull. Among the highs, slim and crunchy cheese croquettes flavoured with the Asian herb perilla; the delicate jelly containing leaves of the herb woodruff that partnered a thimbleful of flaked crab, a couple of beads of caviar and a ring-sized hoop of caramelised calamari; and the milky-sweet frogs' legs which propped up tiny slices of crisp-skinned bass roasted with myrtle and fennel. Probably the strangest taste sensation was a three-in-one assembly which teamed a single oyster in artichoke jelly with a sugar-dusted cube of beetroot "Turkish delight" and a shot glass of creamy Reblochon cheese.
The first six courses were all nibble-sized, but the accompanying wines by the glass were coming thick and fast - much faster than we could drink them. As each new wine arrived, sommelier Stephen Wilcock invited us to guess its identity, an exercise I abandoned after hazarding "white Bordeaux?" for the first four glasses, all of which turned out to come from Germany or Alsace.
Our banquet ended with two more substantial - and conventional - main courses which proved that Simon Rogan's high-wire acrobatics are grounded in solid technique. Bresse pigeon was lightly poached in cumin-flavoured milk, and impeccably accessorised with a matching boudin, celery ravioli and puréed broad beans. Local beef was perfect, as was the silky purée of star anise-scented parsnip which came with it.
After seven savoury courses (and seven glasses of wine) we were relieved to see that dessert was manageably small - a mini pint of lager, with apricot as the beer and vanilla mousse as its foam. But no, this was just the pre-dessert. We both felt weak and a little bit tearful to be then presented with a platter of miniatures which sampled the entire pudding menu. My notes read "jasmine brûlée, blood-orange mousse, wild strawberries, chocolate thing ..."; understandably, everything was starting to get a bit hazy at this point. God knows how anyone makes it through the 15-course Taste and Texture menu.
At least coffee looked normal, and wasn't served in a syringe or a cube of jelly. But it was a bit cheeky to charge £5 for it and some (totally redundant) petits fours. Still, that was our only grouse. Service comes with stakeholder pride - the chap who took our booking offered to find a local babysitter for us - and the napery is so crisp it must keep Mrs Tiggywinkle busy round the clock. Printed on L'Enclume's menu is the request, "Can you be sympathetic to local residents when leaving the restaurant." Well, no actually. We felt rather envious of them. Not to mention Simon Rogan, who is obviously having a ball in his own little piece of paradise.
SECOND HELPINGS - THE LAKE DISTRICT
By Caroline Stacey
A French bistro successfully importing Mediterranean flavours: £20-£25 for a meal with wine. Temptations include butternut squash risotto and duck with roast fennel.
124 Stricklandgate, Kendal (01539 724843)
The Glass House
A pleasing all-rounder in an old watermill. What they call "continental cooking" is more zestily modern European: tomato and Parmesan tart, lemon tart with raspberry coulis.
Rydal Road, Ambleside (01539 432137)
Punch Bowl Inn
Espresso meets real ales at this top gastropub. It's more like a brasserie, though the beers hit the spot beautifully. As do dishes such as chicken liver parfait with brioche from the chef who's made it such a success.
Crosthwaite (01539 568237)
Inventive modern dishes from an ex-Gordon Ramsay chef are as beautifully turned out as this designer hunting lodge with suites overlooking Windermere. One for the sybarites.
Ambleside Road, Windermere (01539 431922)Reuse content