Until this year, I hadn’t really heard of Cartmel. Which makes me a terrible food person. Thanks to coronavirus, I have rectified that and imagine it may be somewhere I visit again and again ad nauseum (both physically and metaphorically if I eat as much as I did on our first cherry-popping time).
For those who don’t know, Cartmel is a village in Cumbria, down at the bottom near Grange-over-Sands. Made famous by Simon Rogan’s restaurants, it’s now pretty much any food-lover’s wet dream, cramming in enough places to eat, drink and generally fill your face to last a week. I speak from experience after planning a visit for just 24 hours and finding ourselves still reluctant to leave after 72.
During that time, we spent plenty of time taking in this gorgeous village’s highly accommodating wine merchants and bar, its epic cheese shop, some marvellous local pubs and the Cartmel Village Shop complete with its own trademark sticky toffee pudding.
The one thing we missed was Cartmel’s piece de resistance (some might say raison d’etre) – L’Enclume. That’s one for another trip, that’s for sure, so if you want to read about it now you might want to head over to Meat and One Veg’s fine corner of the internet.
What I can offer you, however, is a peep at another of Simon Rogan’s establishments, Rogan & Co. . L’Enclume’s more casual sibling, it’s right up mine and Jamie’s street. Less formal, no obligation to commit to a tasting menu and the kind of place where they let you pour your own sauces and your own wine. Basically, the kind of place that you can settle into as easily as your local brasserie, regardless of its Michelin star.
It actually calls itself a neighbourhood restaurant and while the phrase is becoming as hackneyed as ‘stay alert’, it does seem to indicate a place that recognises that while we all love a treat from time to time, what we cherish as much is somewhere we can feel comfortable as we fill our faces with fine food.
I’ll try not to go on with lengthy descriptions. You know the food is good. If the Michelin people say so (and anyone else who has eaten there), I’m not sure you need flowery words from me, so I’ll keep it concise. As I mentioned, no tasting menus here, so you can opt for a la carte or an eminently affordable weekly lunch menu for £29 for two courses or £33 for three. As tempting as it was we went for a la carte, because when in Cartmel and all that…
I’d had my eye on the ‘snacks’ from the minute that QR code hit my phone and lamb croquettes and comte gougeres were the stuff of food dreams. If you haven’t had a gougere before, add it to your list right now.
Savoury choux pastry mixed with cheese, with more cheese stacked on top of it. Think French pastry genius meets moreish bar snack and you might nearly get there, but you’re probably best just trying them for yourself.
To start, Jamie went for the mackerel tartare. Rogan & Co. may be chilled out in ambience, with great music playing in the background, a casual feel to the interior and warm, friendly staff but there is nothing chilled out about this food – in taste or in appearance.
The tartare was incredibly tasty, so I’m told, but I’m convinced my smoked eel with a caramelised, compressed potato cake and silky buttermilk sauce was the better choice. I’ve tried eel a few times before and never quite managed to like it, but I triple-jumped straight past that and fell in love with this one. Delicate in flavour, appearance and texture, it’s the perfect ambassador for eel to the uninitiated.
While a main of roasted Goosnargh duck with Riesling cabbage kept calling to me from the menu, I stuck to my fishy theme and went with a recommendation from our waitress. Grilled plaice with courgette, garlic and a roasted shrimp sauce. Obviously cooked perfectly, with all the hallmarks of a dish that’s been planned, tested, and is the product of careful preparation and precise execution. Delicate yet well balanced flavours, and a showcase of local, seasonal produce, no doubt including Rogan’s own farm.
Unsurprisingly, within 1.3 seconds of looking at the menu Jamie had chosen aged beef short rib with creamed potato & bone marrow. A classic, but done the Rogan & Co. way, with all the finesse and flavour you’d expect from a top-flight restaurant without detracting from the homely heartiness that you want this kind of dish to include.
And so to dessert. Imagine our delight to see that despite being somewhere where you can order paired wines, where every course is as refined as a debutante fresh out of finishing school, you can order a sharing dessert. Yes, a table full of ice cream, toppings and sauce, there for the taking.
Of course, not just any old Iceland soft scoop with some choccie sauce out of a bottle. Homemade vanilla icecream plus soaked cherries, honeycomb, candied nuts and a sexy sauce draped on top like silken sheets. Yes, it was that sexy. Even more so when paired with a delightful Hungarian dessert wine.
I could go on, and on, and on. But there’s no need. Rogan & Co. really is everything I look for in a restaurant. There is a slick professionalism about it that shows its pedigree, yet carefully balanced with a relaxed approach that really does wave goodbye to the old days when Michelin starred restaurants were places where only certain people felt comfortable.
When I first started this blog I used to assiduously take notes of every course, every element, every moment, and miss the joy of the meal in an eagerness to be able to convey it to you.
After missing out on those moments for myself too many times, I take the scantest of notes now – especially in restaurants that we all know the food will be pretty much faultless. For Rogan & Co. those notes are simple. ‘Music, service, ambience, pour your own wine, pour your own sauces, sharing dessert, informal, honeycomb, and dessert wine’.
Says it all really. If you’re looking for a food-filled escape, get yourself to Cartmel. It really is a magical place.
[We paid in full at Rogan & Co.]